#WhyIScience Q&A: A cell biologist now helps recent college graduates launch their scientific careers

Alex Navarro draws from her scientific and personal experiences to guide young researchers toward their professional goals in the Broad’s post-baccalaureate program.

Alex Navarro, Senior Program Coordinator for the Broad Biomedical Post-baccalaureate Scholars Program
Credit: Allison Colorado, Broad Communications
Alex Navarro, Senior Program Coordinator for the Broad Biomedical Post-baccalaureate Scholars Program

Alex Navarro didn’t always aspire to a career in science. Growing up in El Paso, Texas, as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she never envisioned herself pursuing an advanced degree. Then, while watching the news one evening with her family, she was fascinated by a segment featuring primatologist Jane Goodall and her efforts to study the behavior of chimpanzees in the Congo. Navarro was inspired as she realized, for the first time, that it’s possible to have a career observing nature and asking questions.

Navarro later became the first in her family to attend a four-year college, earning her degree in microbiology from the University of Texas at El Paso, followed by a stint doing research at Novartis in Cambridge, MA, and then graduate studies at MIT to earn her Ph.D. in cell biology. Now at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Navarro helps young researchers envision their own paths to a scientific career as the senior program coordinator for the Broad Biomedical Post-baccalaureate Scholars (BBPS) program, run by the Office for STEM Engagement and Inclusion.

The two-year program provides recent college graduates, especially those from backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences or those dedicated to addressing inequalities in STEM, with support and guidance as they begin their first professional research positions at the Broad and prepare for graduate school in STEM fields. Having navigated that road herself, Navarro serves as the participants’ advisor, guide, and advocate, drawing from her own experiences to help them pursue their goals.

We spoke with Navarro about her path to this unique position and how it informs her work at Broad in this #WhyIScience Q&A.

After watching the Jane Goodall news segment, how did you make your way to pursuing higher education?

In my high school biology class, we watched a video of a cell dividing and I remember thinking, “How is that possible? How does that happen?” It was just an awe-inspiring thing to me, and it blew my mind. I know that my body is made of many cells, but I wondered how cell division actually functions. It’s a seemingly chaotic process where lots of things have to happen at precisely the right time — the idea of how that’s coordinated was wildly fascinating to me.

During college, I studied microbiology and developed an interest in infectious disease. In my honors biology class, I chatted with my professor about a report I wrote on cancer therapeutics. It was the first scientific conversation I had in which someone asked me, “What do you think about this? Why do you think it works?,” and they suggested I might enjoy the curiosity involved in research. I later worked as a student researcher for a virology group, which was my first time working in a lab. I remember really loving the conversations we’d have – the fact that you could observe a process, ask a question, and find tools to test that.

That experience solidified my desire to pursue graduate school, but first, I completed a post-baccalaureate program, similar to the Broad’s, at Novartis in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My experience in this program was my first time away from my family and hometown, and my research there to understand the molecular mechanisms that underlie cancer cell states helped to inform the kind of research I wanted to pursue in graduate school.

During graduate school at MIT and the Whitehead Institute, my interest in cell division came full circle and I was able to explore how a cell divides to make two cells that are genetically identical. Each cell needs the same amount of DNA so they can function like each other. Using time lapse imaging and mutagenesis techniques, I studied the proteins that help ensure the genetic material is equally divided between two cells every time. It was fun to spend so much time watching cells divide.  

How did you shift from practicing science to helping others pursue their own scientific goals?

Throughout my career, I’ve always cared about teaching and outreach. When I moved from El Paso to Cambridge, it opened my eyes to the idea of access — things like the Cambridge Science Festival were just not available to me growing up, and I could see the impact that outreach can have on students. 

As an undergraduate, I got involved in programs that let me interact with students years younger than me. During grad school, I worked with students to share my experiences as someone from an underrepresented background coming to a place like MIT. I also volunteered for the summer student research program, serving as an “outside-of-lab” mentor to help students adjust to the cutting-edge research environment.

Near the end of my Ph.D. work, I reflected on what experiences made me feel fulfilled and gave me energy. I realized that although I loved conducting research, I felt happiest when I was thinking about increasing access to science and actively contributing to it. Luckily, the Broad had been expanding its efforts for early career scientists and this position was a perfect fit for me. My work at the Broad allows me to reflect on my time in grad school and consider what I wish I’d known then, and share that knowledge with other people. 

What kinds of support does the post-baccalaureate program offer to its participants?

The Broad’s Early Career Researchers (ECR) program is an excellent way for new graduates to begin their careers with two-year full-time positions as research or computational associates at the Broad. In addition, ECR participants who are considering graduate school in the near future can also apply to the post-baccalaureate program as an additional experience.

In the post-baccalaureate program, I meet with participants regularly to discuss diverse topics that help them both transition to their first professional positions and prepare for a career in STEM. Being an undergrad in a lab and an employee in a lab are two very different existences, so we aim to equip them with the tools to help them be successful while at the Broad and beyond. Through our regular program meetings, we focus on professional and personal development, advice on maneuvering workplace dynamics, guidance for working well with mentors, and ways to have constructive conversations.

I also enjoy meeting individually with participants to help them prepare mentally and emotionally for grad school. It’s rewarding to get to know each trainee, learn their personal values and background, and help them move through a system that historically may not have been designed for them. Whatever it is that they want, it becomes our shared goal.

It’s not just about providing an opportunity, but also giving people the space to truly see themselves in those opportunities, in a way that honors what they value and care about as well.

What advice do you have for students considering graduate school but unsure if it’s for them?

Participants often ask me how they will know when they’re ready. My answer is that you’re never fully ready because there’s no one way to experience grad school, but you’re most ready when you can advocate for yourself, feel comfortable asking questions, and know when to ask for help. A big part of this is reminding yourself how capable you are at every step. Reflect on your achievements that you once thought were impossible, and build on that to move through the steps to reach your goals.

Also, as annoying or scary as it can sound, networking can be extremely helpful. Find someone doing work that inspires you, ask them to coffee, and learn how they got where they are.