By Alissa D’Gama ‘11, thurj Staff
Harvard students have a lot of answers to the question “What did you do over the summer?” Some may say “intensive language study in Japan”, “an internship with Goldman Sachs in NYC” or “planning events in the White House,” but there are about one hundred who will always enthusiastically reply “PRISE!”
Put to Task
What is PRISE? The simple answer to Harvard’s love of acronyms is the Program for Research in Science and Engineering. The actual answer begins back in January 2005, when then Harvard University President Lawrence Summers made some widely criticized remarks about gender and science at the National Bureau of Economics Meeting. He shortly thereafter appointed a faculty task force on Women in Science and Engineering, which decided one of its priorities was to develop a “summer scientific research community” for undergraduates.
In September 2005, Dean of the College Evelyn Hammonds, then the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity, and Provost Steven Hyman, provided three years of pilot funding for such a summer research program. With no time to lose if they were to get the program up and running by the next summer, the steering committee—newly appointed director Gregory Llacer, Dean of Administration Georgene Herschbach, and Fiona Chen from the Provost’s Office—set out to design what would become PRISE.
Now transitioned from pilot program status and having already completed a successful four years, PRISE is a staple for the undergraduate research community at Harvard College, providing not only housing and food over the summer, but also friendships that last well beyond the closing dinner.
Summer In Boston
Over the summer, PRISE Fellows live together in Leverett House, one of Harvard’s upperclassman residential buildings. They are hosted by House Masters Howard Georgi, well known as the professor of Physics 16 and for his Thursday Physics nights, and his wife Ann Georgi, the Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Adviser, who has helped many PRISE Fellows find their labs.
Unlike during the school year, when the budding researchers must also complete problem sets, take orgo midterms, go to lecture, and participate in a slew of other extracurricular activities, PRISE “creates an environment for a concentrated group of scientists to share their experiences and support each other on a daily basis,” said Llacer.
Besides living in Leverett, the Fellows are provided with a stipend for lunch and also eat dinner together, where the chatter often revolves around the important questions of the day—including how to get an overlapping three-piece PCR to work and the good movies coming out next week.
This may seem unusual, but Jeremy Hsu, a PRISE Fellow in Summer ’09, jokes that you can spot a PRISE Fellow in a crowd because “They’re the ones that simultaneously crowd around both the cheesecake and the science!”
Adds Carol Suh, PRISE Fellow in Summer ’08 and Administrative Fellow in Summer ’09, “Some people have told me that one of the special things about a PRISE fellow is that you can have a discussion on the most random science topics for hours at a time, even if it’s about compost and fertilizer.”
This kind of conversation is just what Director Gregory Llacer hopes for every summer; indeed, his favorite part of PRISE is not just the summer, but the entire year, as the PRISE email list continues to be filled with questions and the Fellows often end up as lab partners or dinner dates, continuing to engage with each other and with science.
“PRISE provides early interdisciplinary opportunities to network with peers to experience science more broadly and to make connections outside more narrow or traditional definitions of scientific research,” adds Llacer.
Outside of their labs, the Fellows are able to propose and receive funding for a number of science and social activities—a unique aspect of the program that allows the Fellows to take the initiative.
As Hsu recalls, “There were countless fun things PRISE did – whale-watching, getting hit in the eye at point blank range by a water balloon that didn’t explode, trying to figure out what exactly a 3-D shadow of a 4-D object is, and exploring the creepy tunnels at Boston Harbor Islands.”
This past summer, for example, Hsu was part of the team that organized a trip to Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to see them perform with Yo-Yo Ma, and part of the team that planned a canoeing trip down the Charles river (cleverly named ‘PRISE takes over the Charles’).
The Fellows aren’t limited to just getting to know each other—there are weekly lectures by distinguished faculty, optional “faculty chats” where fellows can bring in their principal investigator for an informal meal, and an end of the summer dinner for Fellows, their post-docs and graduate students, and PIs.
And of course, there are the presentations given by PRISE Fellows at the end of the summer, describing their research and often attended by their lab mentors. For many Fellows, this event, although a little nerve-wracking, is the first time they get to learn in detail what all their newfound friends had been working on over the past ten weeks: “It was a remarkable experience to hear the cumulation of so many summers of research from all your friends and peers, and to be able to hear from such a wide variety of subjects,” said Hsu.
Get Me In!
For Harvard students interested in PRISE, the application, which is due in the spring semester, consists of several parts: essays about your proposed project and contributions to the community, letters of recommendation, your transcript, and your hopefully abundant enthusiasm for PRISE. Due to the sheer volume of applicants, interviews are not feasible, so the committee relies on the written materials the applicants present.
The ultimate question the committee looks to answer is “Will this person effectively contribute to and benefit from being in the PRISE community?” said Llacer.
The chosen Fellows for next summer certainly have a lot to look forward to. While Llacer notes that it is hard to pick his favorite memory from PRISE, he admits that “If I had to single out a specific event it would be sitting in the dunk tank at the PRISE “carnival” of 2006. It was a beautiful, warm day, and getting dumped in the water over and over actually was pretty fun.”