A former undergraduate researcher reflects on her time at the Broad

Bound for medical school, Rhodes scholar Jasmine Brown talks about how mentorship launched her scientific career and discusses the best ways to boost diversity in science

During the summer of 2017, before her senior year at Washington University in St. Louis, neuroscience major and student researcher Jasmine Brown stepped out of her comfort zone to study something new.

She traveled to the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to try her hand at cancer research, joining the lab of Broad institute member Matthew Meyerson. As a participant in the Broad Summer Research Program (BSRP), an intensive nine-week summer research opportunity designed for undergraduates, Brown worked alongside her mentors in the Broad’s Cancer Program, Bethany Kaplan and Heidi Greulich, to investigate the mechanisms underlying the role of the cellular receptor, EGFR, and its mutations in lung cancer.

The Broad Institute is strongly committed to increasing diversity in the life sciences. The BSRP is run by the Broad’s Diversity, Education, and Outreach Office, which seeks to increase the number of students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, entering and succeeding in STEM careers. The office is focused on developing and implementing innovative programming to enhance student understanding and appreciation of STEM careers. Since 2003, 148 undergraduates have participated in the BSRP. The Broad has also hosted 87 high school students in its Broad Summer Scholars Program (BSSP) since 2013, in addition to 247 high school seniors who have completed the Broad’s genomics elective course offered through MIT’s Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program since 2003.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, student researchers this summer will participate in the programs remotely and will focus on computational research. For the BSSP, running June 29 through August 7, twelve high school scholars will work in teams of two with one Broad scientist-mentor to conduct research in areas such as infectious disease, imaging, cancer, and psychiatric disease. For the BSRP, running June 8 through July 31, ten undergraduates will learn a programming language and complete group projects remotely with input from several Broad scientists. Four students with experience in computational methods will work on independent research projects. Other events, including career panels, scientific talks, social events, and presentations, will occur via video conference.

In the first of a short series of articles featuring alumni of these summer programs, we spoke with Brown, who this year completed a master of philosophy degree in the history of science, medicine, and technology at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. There, she explored the history of Black women physicians in the United States, and she plans to publish her research as a book. This fall, she will begin medical school at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

In this Q&A, Brown shared with us why she chose to become a researcher at the Broad and how the connections she made here helped guide her down a successful academic path.

Q: What motivated you to apply for the Broad Summer Research Program?

A: I had done research in neuroscience at Wash U., but as a recipient of the MARC U-STAR fellowship from the National Institutes of Health, I committed to spending a summer away from my school doing research. A native of New Jersey, I had a preference for the East Coast, and then I learned what a great institution the Broad is.

The Broad seemed like a really cool merger of academia and industry, and the kind of experience that would be hard to get elsewhere.

Q: What did you enjoy about the summer program at the Broad?

A: My time at the Broad was my favorite research experience during my undergraduate years. I loved the social aspect of being in this larger group, the Cancer Program, where I was around people from many different labs. The Broad Institute is much more open to collaboration, especially very large-scale collaboration, than I had seen before. The technology was so cutting-edge, my friends were jealous!

It was also amazing to have these leaders in their scientific fields all in one building. It was easy for me to connect with scientists doing really incredible things. But they were also really down to earth and open to speaking with me if I had questions or wanted help figuring out the next steps in my career.

Q: How did your summer at the Broad help guide your career decisions?

A: As I was considering what to do after graduation, I applied to different international fellowship programs, including the Rhodes Scholarships. Because I was in the same space as all these leading scientists, I was able to meet with Eric Lander and Pardis Sabeti, who had both completed Rhodes Scholarships themselves. I wasn’t sure how an international fellowship would be viewed if I wanted to continue in the world of science, and I hoped to get their advice.

They kindly shared their personal experiences with the fellowship, and how it helped them grow as researchers. I was impressed by the generosity of these professionals, who have had such a huge impact in their fields and were willing to speak with me, one on one, and invest in me in that way. It helped me decide to go for the Rhodes Scholarship.

Q: How did your mentors help you grow as a researcher?

A: I think mentorship is very much connected to being a teacher, and my mentors, Heidi and Bethany, were definitely great teachers.

Some of the other research experiences I’d had as an undergraduate were more technically focused, as opposed to something that really challenged me intellectually. My mentors were great about making sure I really understood what I was doing and the science behind the different methods I was using. They helped me to piece everything together and to value the techniques that I was carrying out daily. Their investment in me made me excited to present my research, because I understood it so well.

Q: What advice do you have for students starting this year’s programs?

A: For people who’ve been accepted to the Broad’s summer programs, I’d say: Enjoy it. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to be wrong — it’s okay, that’s how you learn. And reach out to people, because it is an incredible network.

Q: What advice do you have for scientists thinking about becoming mentors?

A: You can really change people’s lives, and put them on a path for science. The impact that you have becomes exponential, when you train people, as opposed to only you doing the work.

Q: As an undergraduate, you showed your commitment to increasing diversity in STEM fields by founding the Minority Association of Rising Scientists. Do you have plans to continue advocating for inclusion of underrepresented minorities in science and technology fields?

A: I’m hoping to publish a book summarizing my research on Black women physicians and the barriers they face in entering medicine. The project is one way that I hope to continue my advocacy for underrepresented groups in STEM. My inspiration for the book originated from my undergraduate experience trying to help students of color overcome the biases they faced in research in order to help them achieve their dreams of pursuing a research career. Beyond this book, I plan to continue advocating for underrepresented minorities in research and medicine, bringing awareness to these issues, and working with great institutions like the Broad that are committed to increasing diversity in STEM.

Q: What changes would you like to see in the fields of STEM research that might make minority students more likely to pursue these fields?

A: We can provide increased mentorship for these students, more research opportunities like the BRSP, acknowledgement of systematic racism which has existed in research, and implementation of policies to try to address this issue, such as hiring more faculty of color. When an underrepresented minority experiences bias in the lab and then can’t find anyone that looks like them who has made it as a professional scientist, they are more likely to end their pursuit of a research career and turn their efforts elsewhere.

I didn’t meet a Black female principal investigator (PI) until I interned at the Broad. Earlier in my academic career, I had once been questioned by a white male PI who didn’t think I belonged in the lab where I worked. This biased encounter made me question if I really wanted a career in research. It made me question if I would be fully accepted in the research community. Thankfully, my love for research and my support system was strong enough to prevent me from ending my pursuit of research. I kept trying even though I felt discouraged.

Eventually, I got to the Broad where we had a visit from Paula Hammond, a Black female professor of engineering at MIT. This was really inspirational and made me believe that I could also have a successful research career in spite of the prejudice that would make my journey more difficult. I’m so glad that I met her, but it’s unfortunate that this was after I had participated in research for four years.

Q: What reflections do you have on your time at the Broad today?

A: I’d say thank you to the Broad for my experience. I’m so grateful to have been admitted and have had such a wonderful time. Thank you to the leaders of the program who challenged me to leave my comfort zone. It showed me that I was capable of excelling in more than just one area of science. It was liberating for me, and I appreciate that.