Broad Institute researchers share personal paths to research with MOSTEC students

By Lena Bae

Students enrolled in the MIT Online Science, Technology and Engineering Community (MOSTEC) learned about paths to research at the Broad Institute on Thursday, August 1. Speakers Mark-Anthony Bray, a computational biologist in the Imaging Platform, and Angela Brooks, a post-doctoral fellow in cancer biology, discussed their research at the Broad and the journeys that brought them there.

The presentation was part of the 2013 MOSTEC Conference, which brought students in the six-month, online program together on MIT campus to complete a team project, take engineering and science writing workshops, tour MIT and nearby facilities, attend a college admissions panel, and participate in social events. Leading up to the conference, students completed online coursework and projects in science, engineering, and technical writing. After the conference and through January, the students will be busy interacting with MIT faculty and staff and receiving online mentorship from students and industry professionals.

Mark-Anthony Bray

While Bray and Brooks spoke about their current research projects and questions, they also candidly shared the self-interrogation and uncertainty involved in life after school. The MOSTEC students took interest, as the rising high school seniors from across the country are actively applying to colleges and reflecting on their futures.

Bray noted that after completing his bachelor’s degree at Tulane, his Ph.D. at Vanderbilt, and his post-doctorate study at Harvard, he found himself unsure where to aim next. “That was kind of scary,” Bray said. After considering aspects of his experiences he had most enjoyed, he realized they centered around his passion for imaging. He now works as a computational biologist at the Broad Institute, where he arrived in 2008. At Broad, he contributes to the Imaging Platform’s software, which facilitates cell image analysis. He also assists biologists as they apply these tools to contemporary questions of health and disease.

Bray said that it took the better part of a decade to ask himself what he actually enjoyed. “It’s never too late to ask yourself that question,” he advised the students.

Angela Brooks

As Angela Brooks shared, academic interests can have surprising sources. As a child, she loved watching TV shows that featured science and technology, such as Mr. Wizard’s World. In 1997, when Brooks was a high school student, a movie called Gattaca came out in theaters. (Brooks discovered, to her delight, that more than a few of the MOSTEC students had seen the movie.) Gattaca tells the story of the not-too-distant future, when science has progressed to the extent that at birth, babies’ genomes are sequenced to capture information about their genetic makeup, and the social hierarchy is set up according to their DNA.

“It was a movie that made me think a lot about genome sequencing, and what that means,” said Brooks. “I came out thinking – wow, genetics is really cool.”

Graduate school was a novel concept to Brooks until she dropped by a graduate school fair in her sophomore year at the University of California in San Diego. “I said, ‘Graduate school is free and you get a stipend?’ I was just really shocked,” Brooks said. She attended the University of California at Berkeley, where she deepened her interest in genetics by studying gene regulation. Brooks continues to research gene regulation in cancer cells as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Broad Institute.