Skimming through current MIT undergraduates’ CVs (for potential UROPs), I realized I probably wouldn’t have gotten into MIT for an undergraduate degree. There wasn’t really anything exciting about me five years ago. Back home in Puerto Rico, competitiveness to get into college isn’t really a thing. At some point during high school, those of us who wished to pursue an undergraduate degree simply took a standardized test, submitted the scores to our school of choice, and picked a major based on these scores. There was no essay writing or any demands from me then. I just went to school, worked as a secretary for a medical device company, and then went to the beach with my friends on Fridays.
This didn’t mean that I didn’t have ambition to go to school or study, I just didn’t have access or guidance that would have led me to opportunities that could have made me a better candidate.
As an undergrad, I was fortunate to have supportive family and professors (who I now refer to as my academic parents) that pushed me to apply to internships for research opportunities. After having multiple internship experiences, one of them at MIT, I encouraged myself to apply to graduate school. I’m now, along with my brother, the second scientist and the first person in my family to pursue a PhD in any field.
Although I’m privileged to be at MIT right now, the case for many Puerto Rican kids in the island is unfortunately quite similar to the one I had. My last semester as an undergraduate, I volunteered to be a judge at a science fair that hosted students from public schools in the region. I was randomly assigned to judge in the Bioengineering division. After visiting three competitors I realized there was a vast difference among their projects, mainly due to the support and access to opportunities that each student had.
The first project I evaluated was a homemade model of a human organ which attempted to describe its basic biological functions. When I asked the students if they had received some sort of mentorship, guidance, or help, they said no.
The second project was done by a student interested in forensics and mathematics. With the help of their dad, an engineer, they had made a mathematical model to study bloodstain patterns. This student used easy-to-acquire materials, such as dyes and rulers, for their project.
The third project was conducted by a student that, due to personal connections, had access to a laboratory at the University of Puerto Rico. They had completed a formal research project on materials science accompanied by mentorship.
I had no idea how to judge these three very different projects, which were all in the same category and at the same academic level. It was evident to me that the lack of access to mentorship and/or opportunities to conduct research had left some students at a disadvantage.
This kind of disadvantage occurs at every stage in academia. How can we fix this? Although this is truly a problem at the systemic level and will take a long time to overcome, some barriers are being broken down to address this issue (such as disregarding GRE test scores, which are a poor predictor of student success).
If we attempt to get rid of some of the assumptions we make of the world, we can come up with initiatives that help even out the field. These are a few I was able to benefit from:
Creating access to mentorship: No one in my undergraduate institution knew how to mentor a biologist who wanted to transition into engineering. The MIT Biological Engineering Application Assistance Program (as well as other assistance programs scattered throughout the Institute) aim to help students that don’t have access to these mentors. My experience with BEAAP was very helpful and positive, I had lengthy chats with my mentor who gave me feedback on my personal statement and helped me figure out if the MIT Biological Engineering program would be a good fit for me.
Hosting students for research experience: I’ve witnessed numerous talented classmates from Puerto Rico get rejected for research positions year after year. Slowly, however, more students have been able to gain experience thanks to internships. Summer programs like the MIT Summer Research Program (General and Biology & Neuroscience) aim to fulfill that need. The MIT Biology & Neuroscience summer program hosted me to work in a Nobel Laureate’s lab for an entire summer! It was a very enriching and memorable experience that reassured me how much I enjoy doing research. Many schools and institutes organize these types of summer programs.
Each student’s experience is greatly unique. If you’re thinking about taking action to foster equal access to opportunities not only for students from Puerto Rico, but also the rest of the world, a good place to start would be to replace “why has this student not done enough?” with “what has hindered this student’s growth?” In this, and many other ways, we can start to tackle the systemic problems that affect disadvantaged students and ensure that everyone has the opportunity of reaching their potential.
“But if I was born without any straps on my boots, how am I supposed to pick myself up?”