Harvard University - Department of Molecular & Cellular Biology

GRADUATE STUDENT INITIATIVES: SCIENCE CLUB LATIN AMERICA

by Sophie Blum

June 30th, 2016

(r to l) Mohammad Mostajo-Radji, Carolina Salguero, Adrian Jinich, Maier Avendano, Ryan Richardson, Hugo Arellano, Andres Valencia, Omar Gandarilla, Carla Marquez, Martha Zepeda Rivera, Alejandra Falla, and Leonardo Ferreira

Despite the worldwide proliferation of STEM careers, Latin Americans remain underrepresented in the global scientific community. “I think the common denominator for each of us,” suggests Mohammed Mostajo (MCO G5) on behalf of his Latin American peers in Harvard’s graduate science programs, “is that at some point we were exposed to some kind of science outreach program, where we met a scientist, did some cool experiments, and realized, not only that this is what I want to do, but that you can make a living out of it.”

Two years ago, a handful of graduate students and postdocs from MCB and beyond set out to ignite that spark of possibility for as many young Latin Americans as possible, with collaborative, sustainable, and engaging local programming.  

Science Clubs Mexico launched in Guanajuato in 2014, spearheaded by MCB alum Rogelio Hernandez-Lopez and peers from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (CCB) and the medical school (HMS). After serving as instructors in Mexico, Mostajo and Maier Avendano Amado, an HMS graduate student at the time, were both inspired to establish Clubs in their home countries, Bolivia and Colombia, respectively. Today, Science Clubs span 12 cities in three countries, recruiting hundreds of instructors to reach thousands of high school and college students.

Science Clubs, or Clubes de Ciencia, as they are more popularly known, combine fundamental science theory with hands-on experimentation and relevant, contemporary subjects to galvanize interest in STEM fields among Latin American youth. While national Clubs differ slightly based on regions and funding sources, each program offers a variety of interactive courses taught by Spanish-speaking graduate students from Harvard and other American universities in collaboration with local scholars—graduate students and postdocs from Central- and South-American universities. Each course crams 40 hours of instruction and experimentation into one summer week, when students and instructors are on school break and labs at local universities are unoccupied (June and July for Colombia and Mexico, January for sub-equatorial Bolivia).

This January, for instance, Martha Zepeda Rivera (MCO G4) taught “Molecules and Diseases,” a weeklong crash course in Molecular and Cellular Biology tailored to a diverse group of Bolivian high school and college students. Zepeda and her collaborators aimed to bridge the different scientific culture of the Americas by “challenging students to think about the process of discovery and put together pieces of a puzzle as opposed to memorizing and regurgitating principles of biology,” she says.  “Working with minimal equipment, but ambitious learning goals,” Molecules and Diseases invited students to test basic concepts in molecular biology themselves, with MiniPCR machines and western blot tests, among other techniques new to students.

In addition to “Molecules and Diseases,” Science Club Bolivia’s 2016 roster included “Science and Entrepreneurship,” adapted from a Harvard Business School course, and “The History Behind the Data: Finding the Higgs Boson,” in which students analyzed data from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to “discover” the Higgs boson particle (to a 99.9% certainty).

With successful annual programs up and running in three countries, Mostajo, Avendano, and Science Clubs Mexico co-founder Benjamin Sanchez are now focused on centralizing under an umbrella organization, Science Clubs Latin America (SCLA), which will allow the Clubs to strengthen and expand.

As the pool of applicants continues to grow—thanks to student enthusiasm and Science Club’s most effective PR tool, Facebook—a core administration will streamline and standardize both student and teacher applications, alleviating the already daunting workload for graduate student administrators. Crucially, joining forces proved necessary for gaining and distributing resources, in particular less-restrictive U.S. funding.

“Most of the funding we get is local,” says Mostajo, “either from private donors or internal government agencies, which is great—but it’s also a major limitation.” Local funding requires Clubs to spend locally, but key materials such as lab equipment and reagents are much more accessible or inexpensive in the United States. “A reagent that costs $50 here [in the U.S.], might cost $500 there [in Bolivia],” Mostajo explains. “That’s why a grant from MCO was extremely useful, because it goes straight out to lab reagents,” without which Science Clubs Bolivia “wouldn’t be a science program,” he says.

SCLA’s unified front and pooled assets will make it easier to initiate clubs in new countries, an arduous task for Science Club pioneers. “The hardest part for any science club is getting started,” Mostajo attests. “You have to raise all this money and no one knows who you are or has any idea what you’re talking about.” At the same time, the myriad bureaucratic and pedagogical skills required to mount Science Clubs “is all an important part of training to be a scientist.” “We’re learning how to pitch, how to sell an idea, how to go to a funding agency and ask for money,” as Mostajo argues, “these things sound a lot like being a PI.”

The learning curve is steep, but incredibly rewarding for graduate student volunteers. “When Mohammed Mostajo approached me about being a part of the Bolivian team, I was naively excited about what I was getting myself into,” recalls Martha Zepeda Rivera. But “If we fast forward through the rewards and challenges of assembling the program and designing the course… my strongest motivation is the passion, curiosity, and drive of our students…their excitement and appreciation for science is contagious [and] reminds me of why I fell in love with biology in the first place.”

“Molecules and Diseases” co-instructor Leo Ferreira (MCO G5) describes a similar wake-up call:  “Looking back, I don’t think I had the palest idea of how impactful or rewarding it would be… Clubes de Ciencia Bolivia was a true test of my ability to communicate science through teaching.”

“40 hours is what you would usually teach in a semester,” as Mostajo points out, “and you have to teach it in a week to a group of students that is very diverse, much more diverse than you would see here.” Science Club Bolivia, for instance, hosted high school and college students from 8 out of 9 departments in the country—including teenagers native to the Amazonian department of Beni and medical students from urban Santa Cruz, often in the same classroom learning something completely new to them both.  

“I try to push students out of their comfort zone,” Mostajo smirks, betraying an interdisciplinary perspective characteristic of MCO students. “The whole point of science is to intersect fields!” he declares.

A medical student is now applying for a fellowship from NASA, after discovering his true passion for space thanks to the Higgs boson course. Esteban Quispe, whom Mostajo recruited to the Science Entrepreneurship course, taught himself to build animatronic robots from junkyard scraps, and is now studying robotics at university under a full-ride scholarship, while employing his entrepreneurial expertise to increase production and market his creations for Christmas 2017.  

Realistically, “Maybe 10% of these kids will eventually go into science,” Mostajo estimates, and may eventually contribute to a more diverse applicant pool for programs like MCO. After all, science outreach programs like Science Club are indeed what inspired Mostajo and many of his Latin American peers at Harvard to pursue research careers. But for the other 90%, he notes, “They at least understand the scientific method. So, whatever they end up doing, their perspective on science is very different and their perspective on the world is very different.”

As Leo Ferreira remarks, “No one knows who will make the next big discovery. He/she could be from anywhere in the world. So, when a country’s youth is not exposed to the pleasure of scientific exploration and discovery, it’s not just that country that loses. It’s the whole world.”

For more about Science Clubs Latin America visit Science Clubs Mexico (in English), or Science Clubs Colombia or Science Clubs Bolivia (en español)