Secret of Her Success

Rocio Nunez Pepen discusses mentorship, gel electrophoresis, love for research

Rocio Nunuz Pepen headshot and in the MGH lab

Rocio Nunez Pepen is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and a recent graduate of Brown University. Now living in Boston, she is this summer’s coordinator of Project Success, an HMS program for underrepresented or disadvantaged Boston and Cambridge high school students who participate in paid, mentored research internships at HMS and its affiliated institutions.

Since ninth grade, Nunez Pepen has participated in HMS Office for Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership (DICP) programming, including: Reflection in Action, a middle school program that links improvements in individual and community health to engagement in civic action, Advanced Placement Biology Hinton Scholars Program, Bridge to AP Biology, Project Success, and the Biomedical Science Careers Program (BSCP).

MyHMS interviewed Nunez Pepen prior to the Project Success 2020 summer kick-off.

How did your journey begin at Harvard Medical School?

Rocio Nunez Pepen as Project Success intern delivers her final presentation
Nunez Pepen presents at Project Success 2016.

I was in 10th grade AP biology at Boston Latin Academy, and through the Hinton Scholars Program, the AP students and our teacher, I had access to lab space at HMS with medical students as our mentors. In school, labs involved mixing things together in plastic cups or watching videos. At HMS, we were hands-on with all sorts of software and technology.

I was intimidated when I started the Hinton program. I loved having med students as mentors. They were incredibly knowledgeable, but I also thought it would be great to have a peer from my school who had gone through the class and could help me through the shock factor of being at HMS.

I talked to Dean [Joan] Reede and Dr. [Sheila] Nutt, who oversee the DICP programming, about creating a mentoring program in which former Hinton Scholars would come back to help current students with the software and help them get the most out of the program. By my senior year, I was one of the first mentors, eventually also helping out with the summer Bridge to AP Biology program.

This summer, you’re serving as the program coordinator for Project Success. You bring to the role quite a bit of first-hand knowledge, correct?

I was in Project Success during my junior and senior year of high school and then as a freshman at Brown University. All three years, I did research in Richard Hodin’s Laboratory of Gastrointestinal Epithelial Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital. At first, I was just learning what it meant to work in a lab and mastering gel electrophoresis. I thought, “What is gastrointestinal epithelial research?" The words just didn't seem to mean anything to me.

My grandma was diagnosed with colon cancer when I was in my second year in the lab. Part of the research done in the lab was focused on the GI tract and colon, and the personal connection finally clicked: "Wow, this actually does mean something to me." By my third year, I was showing the new postdocs the ins and outs of the lab.

For three years, I worked on the same aging project, testing an enzyme to see if it reduced inflammation in aging mice. Since I knew so much about the project, I helped write the paper, the first paper I published as a sophomore in college.

With the insight and, it sounds like, confidence, you gained working in the Mass General lab through Project Success, how did you parlay that clarity into your educational pursuits?

During Project Success, I was also part of the Biomedical Science Careers Program. DICP would send an email, and I would sign-up for every program.

Though BSCP, I learned how to network, met young scientists like me, and found that research could be a viable career option for me. I came from the Dominican Republic at 7 years old. Success, to my family, was becoming a doctor or a lawyer. BSCP helped me understand that science offered many more paths, and success could be something other than going to med school and becoming a physician. Although my parents still don’t understand it all yet, I work on explaining it to them every day.

I graduated from Brown this past May. It was pretty anticlimactic—just a 20-minute Zoom video, and we didn’t even get to see our names on the screen. But that’s fine. I studied human development with an emphasis in education studies, basically how children’s cognitive skills develop in school. I also did the premed track, so indirectly, I also completed a biology degree as the premed track is like a bio degree.

What’s next for you?

Dr. Sheila Nutt with Rocio Nunez Pepen following her final presentation as Project Success intern
Dr. Sheila Nutt with Nunez Pepen in 2017.

I have an NIH [National Institutes of Health] grant to work at Boston Medical Center with developmental pediatricians in testing the efficacy of different screening tools for early detection of autism. That starts in September. So when Dr. Nutt emailed to ask me about being this summer’s Project Success coordinator, there was no way I could say no. As this year’s program was going to be virtual, I felt someone like me, who had been a student in the program, would bring insight into what students might need. So here I am.

What excites you about this moment of coming full circle, back to Project Success where it all began to crystallize for you?

I've met the incoming interns—their excitement and naïveté about scientific research reminds me so much of myself, students from underrepresented backgrounds like mine. There are barriers preventing students like me, who don’t have mentorship from their parents, to connections and access to resources.

At Brown, I was always a bit behind because my peers would have already done the labs and a lot of the coursework. I had to seek out additional resources, tutors and such. Sometimes you just don't know where to look for help.

Everyone has a role to play in changing the way the system works, especially in STEM education, and to try to build diversity by helping these students reach their goals. I’m happy to be that person, who’s going to facilitate their understanding about the field, igniting that curiosity and that excitement.

Nunez Pepen is considering medical school as her next step and plans to work with families who have low incomes and lack access to primary care. Her passion is in reducing barriers to education and care through mentorship and empowerment.

Images courtesy of Rocio Nunez Pepen.