This article originally appeared on the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology website.
By Sophie Blum
Annie Arrighi-Allisan (Harvard College, Class of 2015) applied to the Harvard-Bangalore Science Initiative (HBSI) because, “as a neurobiology student, I wanted to gain experience in the lab, and as a curious young adult, I wanted to see the world.”
MCB’s Venkatesh Murthy, member of SAI’s Steering Committee, founded the Initiative in 2007 with SEAS Professor L. Mahadevan and Professor Vijay Raghavan, then-director of Bangalore’s National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). “I started this initiative with two simple goals,” says Murthy: first, “to expose students at Harvard to science in a very different setting (culturally, economically, and geographically) to illustrate how universal it is, and second, to establish ties with leading institutions in India for potential collaboration among faculty and researchers.” Each summer since, the HBSI has sent a batch of 3-10 undergraduates to India for a 10-12 week research internship at one of Bangalore’s world-class scientific institutions.
Thanks to financial support from The Harvard University South Asia Institute, the David Rockefeller Foundation, and room and board generously provided by the NCBS, the internship program runs at cost with no additional fees to students other than off-campus expenses.
In 2011 Murthy recruited Ryan Draft, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies, Neurobiology, to help administer the program. Draft’s own international experiences influenced him profoundly throughout his career, and he enjoys sharing that eye-opening opportunity with his undergraduate advisees. For the first two weeks, Draft accompanies students in Bangalore, helping them find their bearings at the research center, master the logistical challenges of living abroad in India, and settle into their labs.
Students reside in dormitories on the NCBS campus surrounded by mango and eucalyptus groves. As ordinary members of their lab, interns attend lab meetings, journal clubs, and weekly lectures. While such lectures are not mandatory, attendance is high among the close-knit NCBS community and, as Ryan Draft observes, HBSI interns are soon and swiftly swept up in the lab culture. NCBS’s relatively small lab-size (10-15 people) and central café contribute to students’ rapid integration as they hob-nob with grad students, postdocs, and faculty over tea and snacks.
Weekend excursions, often a highlight among students’ reminiscences, are neither prescribed nor supervised, and largely depend on students’ interests and appetite for adventure. Reliably, lab-mates are happy to recommend tourist destinations, hidden gems, rugged treks, and travel routes. Arrighi-Allisan, who completed her internship two summers ago, recalls, “While we were promised to our host labs during the week, we used our weekends to travel around Southern India and explore our less-cushioned surroundings. We saw the grand palace at Mysore, lounged by the picturesque beaches and toured the fragrant spice plantation in Goa, explored the backwaters of Kerala by houseboat, and toured the hidden ruins of Hampi.”
HBSI is open to students from all areas pertinent to the biological sciences, including, but not limited to, the life sciences, chemistry and biochemistry, physics, mathematics, and computer science. This summer’s interns tackled everything from predicting protein structures using computational molecular biology, to the neurobiology of behavior, looking at fear learning in the amygdala. Other projects employed atmospheric chemistry—characterizing aerosols and radiative forcing—or mechanical engineering, motor control, and robotics.
While recommended for rising juniors and seniors, the program admits students of all ages, from those just starting out in the sciences to those who know exactly what they want to work on. 2013 intern Michael Drumm recommends the program to “those who look forward to being put slightly outside of their comfort zone with the hope of greatly expanding that zone by the end of the summer.” Drumm himself testifies to having transformed over the course of the summer: Overwhelmed by the environmental displacement, “The first few weeks I was completely lost [but] by the end of the summer, I was completely comfortable and extremely enjoyed navigating the bustling streets of Bangalore to find some late-night chaats, taking one-way tickets to weekend getaways, finding my way back somehow, and conversing in broken Hindi to people on the street.”
At Harvard, the vast majority of study-abroad programs are humanities-based. While the mind-broadening perspective stimulated by experience abroad “is an essential part of undergraduate education in the 21st century for all students,” according to Draft, “these programs often lack any element of professional development for science students.” “In as much as the enterprise of scientific research is an international one,” he continues, “the sooner we educate students to think globally in training and collaborating as a scientists, the better.” As Drumm puts it, even when “the work is similar to that which you can find in the States, the people you work with come from different backgrounds and can impart different insights and knowledge to the same problems.”
While the HBSI internship is going strong, the initiative’s fundamental mission of international collaboration and intellectual exchange allows for ample expansion. Ideally, Murthy anticipates, “I would like to see bidirectional exchange of scholars at all levels—for example, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from Harvard establishing collaborative projects and spending time in Bangalore, and complementarily, scholars from Bangalore coming to Harvard.” The future is promising; Murthy notes that “the Harvard South Asia Institute has taken a keen interest in catalyzing these ideas, and I am working closely with them to make these ideas a reality!”