Sophie goes Harvard: Do it the American Way

Harvard Medical School after a snowstorm (by S. Curio)

This past spring, I had the privilege of working for three months at Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, where I worked in Ulrich von Andrian’s lab. Funded by the IITB program, my objective was to deepen my knowledge of immunological research and to become exposed to new research methods, such as multiphoton imaging. The project I worked on dealt chiefly with the immune system of the uterus – an area of research still in its infancy. Though often disregarded as unimportant, understanding the mechanisms behind immune reactions in the genital tract is crucial when developing vaccines against sexually transmitted diseases, such as Chlamydia or HIV. My area of research focused on understanding what happens when an antigen enters the uterus: Which cells are recruited? Which cells take up the antigen? Where do they migrate?


Harvard – What to expect?

Before starting my internship at Harvard Medical School, a lot of people tried to lower my expectations, telling me things like “Don’t get too excited about it, it’s just a university like any other.” or “Just because it’s Harvard doesn’t mean it’s that great.” This might be true to some extent – just because it’s a renowned institution doesn’t mean that you will enjoy the research – but there are definitely some advantages of working at an Ivy League school.

One of them is the constant presence of food. Not only were we provided with an excellent breakfast (bagels, muffins, waffles, yoghurt, fruits, etc.) during our weekly lab meeting, any event of even trivial importance was fully catered. Cookies, brownies, and coffee were available at every talk or seminar and after the “Wednesday Immunology Lecture Series”, a variety of cheese, crackers, fruits and wine was provided for all attendees. Not only did this yield great attendance, it also lead to a scientific exchange after the talks: instead of rushing back to the lab, people gathered to discuss the talk – and not infrequently with the speakers themselves. Before going off for the weekend, the whole institute got together in the “Sky Lounge” on the 10th floor to enjoy drinks, eat pizza, and savor the view over Boston. I once asked a coworker how the food was paid for, he looked at me with a startled expression and answered that it was the institute, who else? So if you’re ever wondering why college tuition is so costly in the United States, now you know at least one reason…


You go to a football stadium to…

Patrios Stadium: the location of our “Division of Immunology” retreat (by S. Curio)

Due to the need for the clear communication between different groups, Harvard sponsored several retreats each year. During my stay, the “Division of Immunology Retreat” took place at the Patriots football stadium. We boarded a bus to the stadium that morning and stayed at the conference for the whole day. The schedule included a keynote lecture, a (great) lunch, a stadium tour, coffee and desserts, an open bar and a poster session.


What you should know about the American system

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Harvard researchers don’t work hard. I was seldom the first to arrive and never the last to leave. All of my colleagues were incredibly passionate about their projects and put a lot of effort into their work, which lead to vivid discussions during our lab meetings. I learned a lot about immunology, research methodology, and life as a researcher in the United States, which has both advantages and disadvantages over the European system. Some of the greatest advantages are the PhD programs themselves – in order to obtain a PhD, you need to attend “grad school”, which consists of at least one year of courses and lab rotations and four to six years of the actual PhD project. Depending on the university, there are so-called prelims (for example proposing a research project and writing an actual grant) that need to be passed in order to be able to move on to the PhD project. The average American PhD graduate is, in my opinion, much better prepared to enter the “real scientific world” (working independently, developing ideas, writing grants, etc.) than a German one. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all students and it needs to be taken into account that it takes much longer to receive a PhD in the United States – but PhD programs are a great way to make sure all students receive a similar education, independent of their PI’s qualities. This is not to say that there aren’t downsides to the American system, often due to the construction of American social systems. One of the things that stunned me the most was the amount of money needed for childcare: assuming both parents work full-time as postdocs, almost 100% of one parent’s salary would need to be spent on childcare. Even though employees of high-ranked universities such as Harvard receive excellent benefits, I now have a completely different appreciation of the social system in Germany.

MIT, which is located just across the Charles River from Boston downtown (photo by S. Curio)

Boston itself, with both Harvard and MIT close by, is a great city – there were an immense number of great talks, seminars and symposia. I was able to attend talks by Alexander Rudensky, Andrew Macpherson, Michael Gale, Thaddeus Stappenbeck, and many other great immunologists. And great immunologists are hardly the only people Boston attracts – Boston draws people with different backgrounds from all over the world for work and / or study.

All in all, I had a great three months in Boston. I would definitely recommend doing an internship like this – not only is it beneficial from a “scientific” point of view, it is also a fantastic way to connect with people who hail from every part of the world.


Author: Sophie Curio