From summer students to full-time scientists

Elizabeth Cooney, August 15th, 2011

Each summer talented undergraduates enrolled in the Broad Diversity Initiative’s Summer Research Program in Genomics (SRPG) fan out among the institute’s labs, performing research, attending seminars, and soaking up science before returning to college in the fall.

This summer, not long after the 2011 class of students began their nine-week immersion in science, two SRPG graduates came back to the Broad for longer stays. Now they are scientists themselves: Diego Borges-Rivera has joined Aviv Regev’s lab as an associate computational biologist and Peter Cruz-Gordillo is working in the Cancer Program as a research associate.

The 22-year-old alums had many career options to consider after college graduation. Diego majored in computational biology at Carnegie-Mellon University and Peter majored in neuroscience and minored in biochemistry at Duke University. Their resumes are studded with impressive credentials. Peter returned for a second summer at the Broad and published two scientific papers during his senior year. Diego spent one summer doing research at the National Institutes of Health and another at Harvard Medical School.

When it came time to choose the next step, they both looked back on their time at the Broad and said they wanted more.

“This place is incredible,” Peter says. “Sure, there were opportunities at other places, but I felt I was going to grow big-time here. If you want to hopefully be the best, you’ve got to learn from the best.”

“I’d always been interested in computers but never saw them as something I could do with biology,” Diego says. “The summer program here definitely kicked [that interest] off. It started me thinking this could be something I could really do and really enjoy.”

During Peter’s first summer at the Broad in 2009, after his sophomore year at Duke, he worked with David Thomas on making liver cell lines a more viable resource for screening compounds for toxicity, an effort described in more detail here. Peter found the project fascinating, in part because it was much closer to the clinic than the basic science he was learning at Duke. The following summer he returned to the lab but kept his ties to the SRPG, living in the same dorm and participating in seminars and other parts of the program.

“I absolutely loved it,” Peter said. “The project was fantastic, the mentorship was incredible, not only about the science but especially about the professional and career development I would get.”

Before going to Duke, Peter had little experience in lab science. Born in Puerto Rico — his mother is Cuban and his father is Puerto Rican — he moved to Miami when he was 5 years old. High school science was strictly in the classroom, so when he began a work-study job in an evolutionary genomics lab at Duke, he quickly learned basic techniques from a generous lab manager.

After his freshman year, he applied for a summer fellowship at the Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy at Duke. Three years later, his Duke project was published in Brain Behavior and Evolution and PLoS One. What he learned from mentors at both Duke and the Broad opened a new window for him.

“I’ll never forget those people. Without them I wouldn’t even have thought of this path,” he said. “My idea was to be pre-med, get the M.D., and go into practice. But this whole avenue of science within medicine came from work at Duke and at the Broad that meshed.”

Peter plans to apply to medical school, hoping to enroll in two years, with the eventual goal of becoming a physician-scientist. Throughout college he volunteered at Duke University Hospital’s Child Life program, so pediatrics has appeal. His research interests lie in oncology and neurology.

Diego started college as a biology major but a professor pointed him toward a combination of computer science and biology. He more fully explored that idea in 2010, during the summer after his freshman year that he spent at the Broad. Placed by SRPG with Paul Clemons and Joshua Gilbert in the Chemical Biology Program, he learned how to use the tool MATLAB for computation. After doing algorithm development the following summer during an internship at the NIH, he returned to Carnegie-Mellon and enrolled in more computer science classes.

After his junior year, he studied asthma by looking at genome-wide association studies, which track genetic variation across the entire human genome in people with or without disease, in a Harvard summer program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Diego has always liked biology and computers. When he was 14 years old, he’d pick up the scientific journal Nature and read it for fun. Born in Boston, he lived in Chile for five years while his mother completed her Ph.D. in Latin political science from MIT. His father received a Ph.D. from MIT in urban planning. While his family also lived in Arlington, Va., his parents have settled in Cambridge. Diego graduated from Buckingham Browne & Nichols in Cambridge. Like Peter, he also plans to further his education after two years.

Now he’s working with Joshua Levin in Aviv Regev’s lab, which houses many different efforts, including the study of mouse epigenetics, yeast evolutionary biology, and drug resistance. Diego is working with data from RNA sequencing, a technique that collects, characterizes, and reassembles genes and other genetic elements that have been transcribed from double-stranded DNA into single-stranded RNA. It’s a subject he knew little about until he arrived, but it’s one he has embraced with gusto.

“Joshua is looking at different protocols for creating RNA-seq data with low amounts of RNA,” he said, perhaps one day “taking the RNA from one cell and being able to figure out what one cell may be doing, versus a whole population of cells, especially in cancer.”

Diego values the culture of the Broad.

“I like the fact you can be sitting in a room, you look across, and there can be an organic chemist. Over that way is a computer scientist, over that way is a mathematician, and over there is an experimental biologist. You get the perspective of different views.”

That’s why Diego decided to apply to the Broad for a job after senior year, recalling the atmosphere in which he felt he could talk to any one of these specialists.

“It was nice,” he said. “That’s why the first place I wanted to come to was here.”


 

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