“Way back in March, we knew things were going to be very different. It was clear COVID was going to impact everything in some way,” said Christopher De La Cerda, recruitment and student life manager in the Harvard Medical School Office of Recruitment and Multicultural Affairs (ORMA) and coordinator of the Poussaint Prematriculation Summer Program (PPSP).
Established in 1970 by ORMA founder and HMS Professor of Psychiatry, Emeritus, Alvin Poussaint, the prematriculation program brings together incoming HMS students who are underrepresented in medicine in an intensive experience designed to foster their success at HMS.
Now, in partnership with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the program gives students an opportunity to explore topics in oncology, engage one-on-one with faculty and leadership at both institutions, acclimate to living and working in Boston, and establish a new cohort of peers before classes begin.
“There's such a narrow window to go from applicant to med student, and PPSP is one of the few HMS programs that provides time over weeks, not hours, to focus on the academic-personal-professional transition our students are going through,” said De La Cerda.
Along came COVID-19
Despite COVID-19 lockdowns and mandates to work and study remotely, newly appointed ORMA Director Andrea Reid and colleagues at Dana-Farber were adamant that some version of the program would still take place, said De La Cerda, explaining that backup plans began to be formulated in the spring.
“Harvard’s coronavirus guidelines were shifting quickly, as you’d expect, and our office was transitioning to working remotely. Over the course of three weeks—a really tight timeline—we shifted from a five-week to virtual two-week program. We were also busy keeping our students in the loop; they were really seeing the thing morph daily as we were building it.”
The online format they developed, although rapidly overhauled, was a success, according to De La Cerda and the feedback the program received from the scholars.
Trade-offs were inevitable when paring down content to fit within the slimmer two-week time frame and converting face-to-face networking opportunities into videoconference breakout rooms, but “the students were able to build a cohesive group and get to know each other more closely,” he said. “That’s what counts, after all.”
De La Cerda’s takeaway: “The coronavirus forced our hand to build something new and different that will, hopefully, build value for the students beyond the summer and over their time at HMS. We're now looking into extending PPSP over the academic year, including all four of the scholars’ years. You've got to figure out the logistics of life in COVID-times, right?”
Custom tailored to our time
Sheila Nutt, HMS director of educational outreach, and Joan Reede, dean for diversity and community partnership, have nurtured Project Success from its inception 27 years ago. Distilling a summer-long program for 11th and 12th graders into four weeks while keeping it robust and interactive on a home computer would be a challenge, they said. However, it did provide new opportunities to tailor the program to the times.
“The pandemic, the social upheaval in the country, are creating trauma for young people. This year, in particular, we’re reserving time for conversations about what they’re going through, a vital space for reflection,” said Nutt.
Like many DICP programs, Project Success aims to demystify Harvard Medical School, providing access and resources for Boston and Cambridge high schoolers.
“Our interns come from underserved communities; many are first-generation students,” said Nutt. “We engage these young people in the area of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and through professional development and mentorships, build their confidence and critical life skills—everything from composing a professional email to preparing for a job interview, research presentation or business dinner.”
Reede made it clear from the outset, said Nutt, that DICP would make it possible for any qualified student to participate in this summer’s program virtually, in spite of any obstacles they might encounter accessing technology. Loaner laptops were made available by an anonymous donor, referrals were given to Massachusetts’ internet providers that offer free or low-cost Wi-Fi to households with K-12 and college students, and a Zoom tutorial was slated for day one.
Project Success interns are paid for 25 hours of work per week. The interns’ experience is augmented by workshops lead by HMS faculty, administrators and community partners; virtual site visits to the STRATUS Center for Medical Simulation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Russell Museum of Medical History and Innovation at Massachusetts General Hospital; a discussion of the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; and college and career counseling.
“In the midst of ramping down, then reopening their labs, under the coronavirus protocols, the lab PIs [principle investigators] who have hosted interns in past summers told us, ‘I don't know what I can offer, but I'll be more than happy to do what I can,’” said Nutt.
As it turned out, the core collaborators came through, providing a wide-ranging program that included: time management and college preparation lessons with Michael Payne, HMS assistant professor of medicine and a gastroenterologist at Cambridge Health Alliance; ethics and voting modules led by Lucas DeBarros, executive director of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus; an introduction to research methods with Urmimala Basu, research fellow in the HMS Department of Biological Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology; a precision medicine primer with Latrice Landry, HMS research fellow in pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and sessions on anatomy with HMS students and Martha Katz, HMS instructor in medicine, part-time, at Brigham and Women’s. Providing robust lectures and activities related to their respective research were: Hyewon Hyun, HMS assistant professor of radiology at Brigham and Women’s, Vaishali Moulton, HMS assistant professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Jeremy Wolfe, HMS professor of ophthalmology at Brigham and Women’s.
Rocio Nunez Pepen, this summer’s Project Success coordinator, has participated in the full gamut of DICP’s programming since she was in ninth grade. Filling a gap in a busy schedule between graduating from Brown University in May and starting a National Institutes of Health-funded research project at Boston Medical Center in September, Nunez Pepen leapt at the chance to lend first-hand experience as a program alumna, helping to recapture the excitement and sense of connection she experienced by contributing to the virtual format.
“It will be very different this year. As our students won’t get the same hands-on experience, we’ll focus on honing their research skills. In the precision medicine course, they’ll analyze COVID-19 data using Excel. We’re mailing pipette kits with food coloring to their homes for a virtual pipetting workshop. These research building blocks, they’ll need them, and I think it will be fun,” Nunez Pepen said.
Rocio Nunez Pepen on mentorship, gel electrophoresis, love for research
Secret of Her SuccessBy JEFFRY STANTON
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?
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?
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.
To bolster mentorship, Project Success has partnered this year with CovEducation, a nonprofit program formed during the coronavirus pandemic to facilitate the transition to virtual learning for students with limited access to resources. It provides one-on-one student mentors from Harvard College and MIT, said Nunez Pepen.
Program participants will “also meet with mentors their age, from similarly diverse backgrounds, who’ve managed STEM curricula at rigorous schools. After the program, when everything reopens, the students will have a network of professionals they can reach out to,” she said.
To Nutt, the coronavirus was a catalyst, providing an opportunity to reimagine the potential impact of Project Success through technology.
“The HMS community is not just those who are working or matriculating at Harvard, but all human beings, everywhere. I would like to see Project Success available online to all, globally. This program can benefit so many more people.”
Science brought to life
The first iteration of what is now MEDscience, which was originally called the Harvard Summer Pre-Medical Institute, was created in 2005 by Nancy Oriol, faculty associate dean for community engagement in medical education at HMS, and James Gordon, HMS professor of emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. It was designed to serve underrepresented learners in the field of medicine—minorities, women and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.
In 2008, the simulation-based bioscience summer immersion program expanded to include a credit-bearing, semester-long course and mini-modules.
“Nancy [Oriol] and I worked together,” said Julie Joyal, executive director of the HMS MEDscience Program. “She was an anesthesiologist; I was a nurse. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. We started MEDscience. Twelve years later, we have contracts with 40 schools, teach 1,000 students a year, and we’re still rapidly growing.”
MEDscience students follow a core science curriculum at their schools, then apply their knowledge to solving simulated medical emergencies in teams during weekly visits to HMS. The program boasts a mission that, “brings science to life,” building communication and critical thinking skills and providing practical exposure to STEM careers.
“MEDscience is the HMS mission in action; it’s the inspiration-program creating a diverse workforce. There are hundreds of health care professionals because of MEDscience. There’s just no question that this program is the expression of who we are at HMS,” said Joyal, adding, “Then COVID happens, and March 13 we're gone.”
Lemons to lemonade: MEDscience to teleMED
Joyal was stumped, momentarily, about how to plan ahead for MEDscience as Boston Public and other schools announced they would close—first for a month and then indefinitely—in response to the city’s attempts to quell the coronavirus outbreak.
"I thought, ‘How are we going to make this work? MEDscience is high-touch,’” she said. “I'll tell you though, my team is amazing. We came together. We were scared together. Then we got to work. We turned my garage into a warehouse. We assembled and mailed kits with scrubs and stethoscopes to our summer students from my front porch.”
“My younger staff, in their 20s and 30s, proposed putting our curriculum online. If it were up to me alone, I don't know what the heck would have happened. I didn't even know how to get on Zoom,” said Joyal. “But my team knew what we needed to make this new thing engaging enough to keep everybody awake: We went from eight hours to four, we had actors dress up as patients (myself included), simulating various emergencies, we had CPR demos, we had animated speakers. MEDscience teleMED was off and running.”
“It turns out the students loved it,” Joyal said. “We're getting rave reviews, and we have a huge waiting list. Kids are joining us from California, Hawaii, Canada… Malawi.”
In the end, it’s about being flexible and open to adapting to the circumstances, said Joyal.
“We’ve learned so much about online programming that MEDscience is going to be bigger and better for it. The silver lining is that now everyone will be getting MEDscience, online and/or in person. In the long run, it's all going to work out,” she said.