The Pod Leader Experience

Mentoring for the MIT Summer Research Program
DEC 2019
Cristina
T.
Biological Engineering

Every year, the Office of Graduate Education (OGE) hosts around 40 undergraduate students from around the country to engage in meaningful research at MIT during the summer. This effort, called the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP), aims to provide underrepresented minorities an opportunity to conduct research at world-renowned labs on campus. The cohort consists of interns with diverse nationalities, ethnicities, abilities, and academic backgrounds. An integral part of MSRP is having the students interact with current MIT graduate students. That’s where Pod Leaders come in to play. 

I became an MSRP Pod Leader for the summer of 2018, right after my first year of graduate school. Now, I’ve had this question asked way too many times, so let’s get straight to it: what exactly is a Pod Leader? The MSRP cohort is divided into groups, or pods, of roughly 10 students each. As a Pod Leader, I was in charge of forming community within the pod and making sure their experience at MIT was a rewarding one. This meant that often, if a student encountered a problem or wanted advice, I was their first point of contact. 

Before students even arrived on campus, I got to meet the program coordinators and staff at the OGE, as well as fellow Pod Leaders. I was trained to facilitate group discussions and deal with problems in case they arose over the summer. I also met my co-Pod Leader, another graduate student that quickly became a very good friend. We were also provided with funds that we could spend with our pod (Pod 3!), which meant lots of food and fun activities! 

I can’t talk about all the great experiences I had as a Pod Leader, but I can share some of my favorite memories from that summer. Soon after the students arrived, we were taken to Project Adventure, a challenging ropes course for team building. It started out with fun games and ended up with us climbing trees (and jumping off them!). My favorite challenge was, of course, this last one, where two group members climbed adjacent trees, walked across a log that connected them, and once they met in the middle, they would have to do some intricate handshake. After that, you jump off the log! The catch is that the rest of your team members are on the ground holding you down with a rope, so they’re in charge of you coming down gently. My pod did great that day, and I had a wonderful time getting to know them and overcoming these obstacles together. 

Over the summer, my co-Pod Leader and I held dinners for Pod 3 every week. We would go around the room discussing at least one plus (good thing that happened that week) and one delta (bad thing that happened that week). This was when problems the students were having in their labs or in housing situations would come up. Other times, students would reach out to me, and I would meet them individually. I didn’t mind receiving a late-night call or rescheduling experiments to meet with them. As a mentor, I tried to listen closely to their problems and understand the cause. I also tried to understand why some situations caused distress in students and tried to find ways to alleviate that distress. I never intended to have the right answers and I knew that, in the worst case scenarios, the OGE staff and other MIT resources would be available for my students. But it was in these rough times that I discovered the kind of mentor I am and the capacity I have to empathize with others. It was fulfilling for me to see my students tackle and overcome all the obstacles they faced. 

In a sense, I found that sharing my life experiences was helpful for them. I know what it’s like to belong to a minority group, leave home, intern at a place like MIT, and be overwhelmed with all the responsibilities while still asking myself if I even deserve to be here. It was humbling for me to admit to them that, even in grad school, I don’t have everything figured out yet.

When the summer experience was coming to a close, Pod 3 had a bittersweet goodbye. We went out for a nice dinner and exchanged gifts and nice words (yes, I cried several times that week!). On the very last day, we all got to see the results of their research work at a Poster Session. All students had done an amazing job! The thrill wasn’t over though, since Pod 3 members went skydiving that very afternoon!


Pod 3 at Boda Borg!

When applying to be a Pod Leader, I had no idea that it would become one of the greatest experiences I have had at MIT. The job wasn’t really over after all the students went back home; on the contrary, I’ve kept in touch with them, explored cities with them, helped them out with their graduate school applications, and have witnessed them do amazing things over the course of the past year. Some of them have just recently earned their undergraduate degrees and started graduate school! Each member of Pod 3 is unique and I’m excited to see all the great things they will accomplish over the years. If you were a part of my MSRP family and happen to stumble upon this post, just know I am (always) very proud of you!