Discovering a career in academic research at MITES

As a high school student in Shreveport, LA, Cherish Taylor, MITES ’09, thought that a career in science meant being a teacher or working in a crime laboratory. She was interested in DNA analysis and began searching the internet for science programs that could get her some experience in that field. She found MITES, and never expected how many possibilities would open up.

Taylor was placed in the MITES Genomics course where she learned how to sequence DNA from real patient samples, and diagnose types of cancer. “I felt like my world was totally blown open (…) It was a whole new world for me being at this large research center.” Today, Taylor is a fifth-year Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin doing research in a type of Parkinson’s disease caused by high levels of manganese in the human body. Her first paper, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, was selected as one of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences 2019 Papers of the Year – it was one of the most influential papers among more than 3,000 researchers and grantees.

Taylor said interacting with MITES teaching assistants was one of the most valuable components of MITES. She learned about the universities they attended, and their different fields of research. She also realized TAs were a network that she could leverage to get through tough academic experiences. After MITES, Taylor applied to Harvard, where she obtained her undergraduate degree in psychology and neurobiology. “I would have never applied to Harvard if it had not been for MITES (…) In so many ways the program was just transformational for me.”

As a graduate student, Taylor participates in mentorship programs where she supports high school and undergraduate students from underserved or diverse backgrounds through their academic journeys. Her next steps are to graduate at the end of the summer, look for a post-doc program focused on psychiatric research, and find a mentoring network of her own, where she can connect with other women of color in science to explore future career decisions.

A unique supportive community

When Taylor looks back at her experience at MITES, she reflects on how unique it was to be in a learning environment that was rigorous, but also fun, and where everyone could be themselves. She remembers the problem sets and challenging courses, and also going to the 4th of July fireworks with her cohort, having picnics and outings to Martha’s Vineyard. “I didn’t realize how unique that was, to be in a highly scholarly setting but also be able to have hip hop music playing, to hear African-American English vernacular and to not question someone’s intelligence.”

And for Taylor the MITES experience serves as a reminder that a supportive community of scholars from diverse background exists across the country. “You might be the only person of color in your current environment, but the MITES community is out there!”