LEAH Knox Scholars Program kicks off fourth summer

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A kickoff event on June 24 commenced a summer of science for local high school students. Established in 2017, the Leaders through Education, Action, and Hope (LEAH) Knox Scholars Program is a collaboration between MIT and Health Resources in Action (HRiA), providing mentorship and hands-on lab experience in the field of biology.  

Each summer, 24 rising juniors from disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds enrolled in Boston, Cambridge, and Everett, Massachusetts public schools attend a five-week lab course at MIT. They receive a stipend, learn basic laboratory and quantitative techniques, and attend workshops to develop other professional skills. The next summer as rising seniors, they join research groups throughout the Boston area to complete a six-week internship.

The kickoff event was held via Zoom, and brought together over 63 current and former students, donors, partners, parents, and instructors.

“The LEAH project has a concept called ‘FamiLEAH,’ and so the kickoff event is all about welcoming everyone into that community,” says Lisa Aslan, director of HRiA’s LEAH Project.

Ryan Elbashir, LEAH Knox teaching assistant and incoming first-year biology graduate student, says she knew when she was applying to MIT that she wanted to interact with the greater Boston community.

“Programs like LEAH Knox inspire other students from underrepresented groups to get excited about science and form meaningful connections with higher education institutions like MIT,” she adds. “My impression from the kickoff event was that this program aims to not only provide students with an educational experience, but also a support network and source of mentorship for the remainder of their academic careers.” 

Participants split into breakout rooms for icebreaker activities, and then reconvened for a live Q&A with Lynn Porter. A pediatrician and advisor to the program, Porter is the granddaughter of the man who inspired the LEAH Knox Program: William J. Knox.

The grandson of enslaved people, Knox went on to earn degrees from Harvard University and MIT, contribute to the Manhattan Project, and have a fruitful career at the technology company Eastman Kodak. Despite his many accomplishments, he faced adversity simply because of the color of his skin. For instance, as a student at Harvard he was forced to sleep in the kitchen because Black men were not allowed in the dorms.

Porter recounted her grandfather’s life and discussed why it’s crucial for people of color to pursue science degrees. She encouraged the LEAH Knox scholars to work hard, form lasting relationships with mentors, and never give up on their dreams.

Following Porter’s Q&A, the keynote speech was delivered by Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and a founding member of the McGovern Institute. She shared her love of research, and explained her work studying the functional organization of the human brain. The LEAH Knox scholars had the chance to ask Kanwisher questions before a brief orientation for their families.

Rothsaida Sylvaince, a former LEAH Knox scholar, says the program introduced her to another world where she transformed into a scientist. As she entered her second year, she realized “that I could be a scientist not only within MIT’s lab, but anywhere. It gave me the confidence and support network to pursue science with all of my energy.”

This year, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, rising juniors are not conducting lab work on MIT’s campus. Instead, Director of Outreach Mandana Sassanfar and Technical Instructor Vanessa Cheung partnered with MIT’s Edgerton Center to enable students to bring their research home. Sassanfar and Cheung created “Bags of Science” containing specialized DNA and protein modeling kits, as well as tubes, pipettes, and other lab equipment. These tools, Cheung says, will help students participate in hands-on activities — like extracting DNA from fruit and running an agarose gel — from the comfort of their own kitchens. 

“The hope is that even though the students can’t physically be in the lab this summer, they will still get a chance to practice some basic lab techniques and gain a better appreciation for molecular biology research,” she adds.

HRiA will be providing their college and career readiness programing for all students virtually, and rising seniors will complete their research internships remotely. Eight of the second-year scholars have been placed in labs at MIT, and started their six-week internships on June 29.

Sassanfar says that, despite the current circumstances, it was very important to offer second-year students the opportunity to work on remote research projects.

“The eight students placed at MIT will gain very valuable coding skills,” she adds. “It was even more important to offer a virtual lab course to the rising juniors this summer, so they can apply for internships next summer. The LEAH Knox Scholars Program is all about teaching students underrepresented in the STEM fields how to do research, and to prepare them for a career in STEM.”

Don Pinkerton, a biology teacher at Revere High School and LEAH Knox intern supervisor, says he admires the program’s mission to bring STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) opportunities to low-income students of color.

“Even though we won’t be in the lab this summer,” he says, “our students will be able to conduct real science through the exploration of data. In addition to reading and discussing papers and other media, I hope to bring in engaging guest speakers and possibly run some at-home experiments.”

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