The Minority Biomedical Scientists of Harvard (MBSH) is a GSAS Graduate Student Group that aims to improve the experience of scientists from underrepresented backgrounds by organizing community-building and professional and career development events throughout the academic year. MBSH provides a welcoming and intellectually enriching environment to a diverse population of graduate students, research assistants, postdoctoral fellows, and undergraduates interested in a career in the sciences who are based in the Cambridge and Longwood campuses. The group’s membership comes from across graduate programs in the Harvard Integrated Life Sciences, attracting students from all corners of GSAS, and its executive board is composed of students from the Chemical Biology PhD Program, Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Harvard PhD Program in Neuroscience, and Molecules, Cells and Organisms.

Recognizing the importance of building community for Harvard’s minority students in the biomedical sciences, the late Dr. Jocelyn Spragg founded MBSH in 1994 along with two Division of Medical Sciences (DMS) students, Michelle Hamlet and Gentry Patrick. Spragg, an associate professor of immunology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who served as faculty director of diversity programs and special academic resources in DMS at Harvard Medical School (HMS) for nearly three decades, also created the Summer Honors Undergraduate Research Program (SHURP), one of the premier summer undergraduate research programs designed to enhance diversity in the biomedical sciences. Her legacy lives on through the annual Jocelyn Spragg Lecture, which MBSH launched in 2013. In May 2017, Dr. Daniel Colon-Ramos, associate professor of cell biology and neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine, will deliver the third annual Spragg Lecture, meet with graduate students, and participate in a career panel.

With financial and administrative support from the DMS Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs, MBSH organizes a variety of social and professional development activities, including faculty lectures and panel discussions, fellowship seminars and career panels, journal clubs, lunches with professors, and a peer mentorship program for SHURP. The group often cosponsors events with other student groups, such as Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering and SACNAS at Harvard.

Gonzalo Gonzalez-Del Pino, Roo St. Pierre, Ivan Santiago, Carmen Sivakumaren, and Freddy Valencia are members of the MBSH board. Below, they share how MBSH has helped them to feel more welcome at Harvard.

Why is a group like MBSH important for GSAS Students? How does the group support the GSAS student experience?

Ivan Santiago: A group like MBSH is not only important for GSAS students, it is absolutely essential. Students from underrepresented backgrounds pursuing a PhD in biomedical science are placed at a severe disadvantage during their training. More often than not, the mentors we attempt to emulate come from different backgrounds than our own and as such, often find it difficult to relate to the challenges we face. To remedy this, underrepresented graduate students often seek out bonds with other students who they can relate to. Thus, MBSH is crucial because it catalyzes interaction between underrepresented students and creates events that bring students in contact with professionals in various biomedical fields who are from underrepresented backgrounds. To achieve the former, MBSH organizes social events such as game nights, holiday parties, and—along with Dean for Academic Programs and Diversity Sheila Thomas and Assistant Director of Diversity and Minority Affairs Karina Gonzalez Herrera—regular coffee and cookie gatherings where students from different departments can unite, interact, and support one another. The second role of MBSH is accomplished via the organizing of events like lunches with faculty, career panels, and special lectures.

These events often bring students in contact with professionals they would otherwise not have the opportunity to meet.

Roo St. Pierre: GSAS goes to great lengths to promote and celebrate diversity, be it cultural, intellectual, or spiritual. Minority-centric Harvard student groups such as MBSH create a welcoming home away from home. Harvard is a diverse and collegial environment spread across two cities that are separated by a river. By our second year of graduate school, we tend to become isolated from one another, not by choice, but by geography. Although MBSH is primarily Longwood bound, we always seek to bring students together and we have an unwavering commitment to facilitate both social and professional events that remind us that we are not alone.

Carmen Sivakumaren: MBSH enhances the GSAS student experience by not only celebrating diversity in the biomedical sciences, but by also promoting inclusion and integration of minority groups into the larger community at Longwood. By balancing personal/professional development and networking events with social gatherings and outreach efforts, MBSH provides a welcoming and enriching environment to a diverse population of students. Forging meaningful relationships is one of the most valuable experiences for students throughout graduate school, and MBSH serves as a key avenue for that to happen in an organic fashion.

What are some personal anecdotes about how the MBSH community has supported you or others?

Santiago: As an underrepresented minority, this culture shock can be, and has been, debilitating, as it effectively generates self-doubt with regards to my capabilities and promise as a budding scientist. I became acquainted with MBSH after my second year (when cultural challenges I faced had peaked in difficulty). Since then, the students I have come in contact with, and the relationships I have forged, have been instrumental in not only establishing a sense of comfort, but an ability to thrive in my academic environment.

Freddy Valencia: In moving across the country to attend a graduate program in which I was one of only a few students of color, I began graduate school feeling like I had to prove to others that I belonged in this highly competitive environment. Meeting brilliant students of color passionate about science through MBSH has helped me build confidence in my own abilities and provided me with a sense of comfort and belonging at Harvard that extends from my own graduate program.

Additionally, it can be so easy for a graduate student to focus solely on one’s research and become overwhelmed with work. The social events sponsored by the DMS Office of Diversity and Minority Affairs and MBSH, such as the bi-weekly Coffee and Cookies and Game Night each semester, have provided me (or more generally students) a chance to connect with other students of color (and those who support diversity) to connect, share our experiences, and importantly, encourage one another on our journeys to a PhD.

Sivakumaren: As an international student of color, I spent my first couple of years at Harvard battling Impostor Syndrome and feeling terrified and inspired at the same time, all the time. I serendipitously discovered MBSH early in my graduate career.

Carmen Sindhu Sivakumaren

MBSH very quickly became a community where I felt a sense of belonging, a community where I was able to connect with people from all backgrounds.

I could share my struggles and victories in graduate school with like-minded individuals, other students of color who were passionate about science. MBSH has also allowed me to not just support but also help initiate and lead efforts to improve representation of our minority students and promote diversity in the sciences, an issue that is dear to my heart.

Gonzalo Gonzalez-Del Pino: Getting involved with MBSH has given me a community of peers with whom I can talk about issues with my experiments, what I want to do after graduate school, and what’s going on in politics. It is also incredibly encouraging to be surrounded by a group of people who come from so many different backgrounds and yet share my passion for doing, sharing and discussing science!

St. Pierre: Throughout the first three years of graduate school, as failed experiments piled on, my MBSH friends kept me afloat. As we joined different labs throughout Harvard, we kept close tabs on one another through various social events. As I look forward to graduation, I can confidently say that I made friends within MBSH that will outlast our time here at Harvard. 

A Community of Peers