Co-first-author non-academic PhD work

11 minute read


While the focus of my PhD was my scientific research, I also grew significantly as a leader and person through the extracurriculars I did. And even though none of those things will show up in my google scholar, I’ve been proud to contribute as “co-first-author” to many initiatives. I want to share them here, both as a reminder to myself and so that they can survive somewhere on the internet even if things in my department change.

BE Application Assistance Program (BEAAP)

Probably the thing I am proudest of having helped start is the BE Application Assistance Program (BEAAP). In this program, we pair prospective applicants to our department with current graduate students to give them an inside view into the application process and provide feedback on application materials. The idea is to even the playing field: many of us have friends or friends-of-friends who applied to grad school and can give us pointers, but many others don’t. Programs like this give all applicants a chance at that insider mentorship.

I’m really proud of the language we wrote to describe the program: it combines my deep dedication for using this program as a tool for recruiting students from traditionally underrepresented groups with our department’s more holistic view toward diversity efforts by highlighting that we want students who bring a “diversity of thought and experience” and who do not come from schools that traditionally send students to MIT.

I was also really excited to write the executive summary of our report the second year. I love me some strategic boldface.

Application assistance programs are not a novel idea (in fact, Media Lab and DUSP already had similar programs) but I think it’s pretty impactful, though not in the way I had originally expected. I think the biggest impact we had was getting a large part of graduate student body engaged in diversity and equity work. Because the time commitment is so low and helping people with their applications is something most of us already do, we had over 30-40 grad student volunteers each year (which, in a student body of ~120, is pretty impressive!). Students were really excited that this program exists, and I think our student body is more active in diversity and equity advocacy now in part because of this.

Second, the mere existence of BEAAP shows to prospective students that our department values and supports diversity and inclusion efforts. (That said, BEAAP is entirely student-run – so how accurate of a picture is it painting, if the department is incredibly supportive of these efforts, but without necessarily committing actual resources to them…?) Third, the existence of BEAAP and the enthusiasm it garnered is an easy way to push conversations with department leaders about what more we should be doing. Sort of like, “look – everybody loves this and wants more. What are we gonna do about it?” It also gives the department something to brag about, which they then hopefully feel obligated to back up with additional action. Now that we’ve opened pandora’s box and demonstrated enthusiasm from all sides, we can’t go back to apathy and inaction. I hope.

If you’re interested in starting something like this in your department, I encourage you to reach out to the BEAAP folks and/or to the GSC diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, who are helping coordinate the establishment of these programs in other departments. The 2017 executive summary also includes lots of implementation details, in the hopes that it will be useful to others starting their own versions of this program.

BE Department Values

Something else that I’m basically as proud of as BEAAP is having written BE’s Community Values. These were written in response to a diversity survey we administered in our department, which made it clear that there were issues in our department (nothing dramatic, just what you’d expect from an environment without many rules) and that many people were unsure about what was “okay” or not.

Scott mostly wrote the first draft, and then Manu and I made many edits to perfect the language. We passed it by the faculty, undergraduates, and postdoc representatives to get approval. Interestingly, our first version was very student-centric and totally aliented faculty – it was super interesting to get their feedback and edit accordingly. Just goes to show the importance of having all stakeholders involved.

Writing these values in response to our survey also coincided with MIT’s push to get every department to write diversity statements, which is how I think our department head pushed it through with faculty. (I’m actually pretty salty about this, because while the values do center diversity and well-being, they are absolutely not a substitute for a concise statement on diversity and equity. hrmph.)

The values are on the BE website, and just for posterity’s sake I’m also copying them here:

BE Community Values Statement

The MIT Biological Engineering (BE) Department’s core values are rooted in our mission to educate leaders and generate new knowledge at the interface of engineering and biology. These Community Values guide our decision making and inspire us to advance a community in which everyone can thrive. We expect all BE community members to adhere to these values and take action if they are not being upheld.

  1. We are defining, establishing, and leading the emerging discipline of biological engineering.
    • We use engineering approaches to make, model, and manipulate biological systems.
    • We train scientists and engineers who value societal contribution and collegiality and who work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.
    • We uphold the principles of the scientific method through our research, actions, and communications.
  2. We support a diverse and inclusive community.
    • We value and actively promote a faculty, staff, postdoctoral, and student community of diverse races, nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds, gender expressions and gender identities, sexual orientations, religions, abilities, educational backgrounds, and intellectual convictions.
    • We take action to ensure that every community member is empowered to take full advantage of MIT’s opportunities for learning, discovery, and personal growth.
    • We engage in open, respectful discourse and the exchange of ideas from a wide variety of perspectives.
    • We welcome feedback from all community members and pledge to respond to community needs and concerns.
  3. We provide a safe environment for learning, working, and living in which everyone can thrive.
    • We affirm that nothing takes precedence over the physical and mental health and wellness of our community members.
    • All community members treat one another with respect and professionalism.
    • We acknowledge that the hierarchy within academia results in power imbalances. Regardless of a community member’s status as a student, faculty member, postdoctoral associate or fellow, scientific staff member, or other staff member, we do not permit any unequal power dynamics to affect our commitment to these shared values.
    • We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment. We will comply with the letter and spirit of the law and MIT policy when responding to discrimination and harassment.

Every community member has a right to fair, legal, and ethical treatment. Members who experience or witness behavior contrary to these values should seek support. Available resources include departmental administration (e.g. the Department Head, the Undergraduate and Graduate Program Chairs), student groups (e.g. REFS, undergraduate and graduate student boards, MIT Postdoctoral Association), MIT Medical and MIT Mental Health and Counseling, the Deans’ Offices, the Office for Student Citizenship, the BE Administrative Officer, Human Resources, the MIT Work-Life Center, the Ombuds Office, and the Institute Title IX Office.

To ensure that we uphold and institutionalize these values, the BE department commits to commissioning a task force of faculty, students, postdocs and staff by September 2017 to:

  1. examine current policies, procedures, and departmental data within the context of diversity,
  2. identify opportunities for improvement within the department,
  3. set goals for each improvement opportunity, and
  4. develop a plan of action for addressing each opportunity for improvement, to be presented to the departmental leadership by September 2018.

Resources for drafting this statement include MIT’s code and mission, codes from other institutions (Caltech and UC Berkeley), the 2015 MIT ICEO report, MIT faculty’s affirmation of our shared values (, and the 2015 Black Students’ Union Recommendations.

BE Graduation Criteria

Something else that I was frustrated didn’t exist, that I went ahead and wrote, and which I’m now really proud of are graduation criteria for what defines a successful PhD student. This part turned into quite a rant, so I’ve put it in its own blog post.

The process for writing these criteria involved about a year of keeping my ears open for graduation criteria in meetings and conversations with our department leaders and a morning of looking through official expectations-setting documents (e.g. our department’s handbook, MIT policies, and our department’s website). Then, I tried to identify the underlying interests unifying everything, and wrote up the criteria.

The first criteria is about science: being a successful PhD student, above all, means that you have done groundbreaking science. Second, leadership: our department is educating leaders in the field of bioengineering, and is incredibly supportive of impact broadly defined (i.e. we don’t just make the next generation of BE faculty, but also support policy and industry leaders). Third, logistics: you need to take your required classes, TA, write a thesis, and be here for at least one full academic year.

Read them in full here.

MIT-Harvard Microbiome Symposium

This last one is less BE-centric, and related to my tenure as President and cofounder of the MIT Microbiome Club. Working closely with Ben Mead, an HST grad student in Jeff Karp’s lab, we organized the first two annual MIT-Harvard Microbiome Symposia (2016 website and 2017 website). We partnered with the HSPH Microbiome Student Group to put on a symposium that highlights early-career researchers and brings together clinicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs working in the field of microbiome science.

I’m really proud of how it’s turned out: I think it’s led to some good cross-disciplinary connections and is a great space for people in the microbiome community to meet and catch up. Also, I’m especially proud of the speaker demographics: in the past four years, we’ve always had at least 50% women keynote speakers, and not all white! The first year we organized the symposium, actually, we almost had exclusively women speakers – our two keynotes were women, and we accidentally happened to select abstracts from only women speakers (one person had to back out, and her male colleague gave the talk in place of her).

Most excitingly, I got some messages yesterday morning along the lines of “missing you at the symposium” – I didn’t even realize it was happening! It really feels good to have started something that keeps going without you. I hope it continues for many years to come! :)