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Mentorship at Radcliffe and Beyond

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Illustration by Iamguru/Adobestock

Fellows and their undergraduate research partners keep in touch more than seven years later, across continents.

The Radcliffe Research Partnership (RRP) program pairs Harvard undergraduates with Radcliffe fellows in all subject areas to work together on fellowship projects. RRPs have performed literature reviews, worked in labs, written computer code, edited videos and books, created art, organized events, and translated articles.

But at Radcliffe, the work and the connection between student and fellow rarely end when the year draws to a close. They build relationships that far outlast their time at Radcliffe, even when they live in different countries.

We spoke with three former fellow-RRP pairs about their time at Radcliffe and their experiences afterward: Zaid Jabri RI ’17 and Emily Brother ’19; Hala Zreiqat RI ’17 and Mohamed Ebied ’19; and Mei Zhen ’RI 14 and Donald Brooks ’17.

At Radcliffe, the work and the connection between student and fellow rarely end when the year draws to a close.

Developing a Bond

Jabri and Brother

In the fall of 2016, Zaid Jabri, a Syrian composer, arrived in Cambridge from Poland and began working on an opera, called Cities of Salt, about the cultural transformation of the Arab Peninsula as a result of the oil business. He decided to look for an RRP to help him write a piano reduction—a version of the opera to be played by a pianist during rehearsal, since opera singers don’t usually practice with the orchestra until the dress rehearsal.

When Emily Brother, then an undergraduate pianist studying music, was scrolling through the student jobs database, Jabri’s posting caught her eye. She had an interest in composing and wanted to gain experience outside the classroom.

Neither Jabri nor Brother expected the relationship to be so close—or so fruitful. “I didn’t realize it would be so much of a partnership,” says Brother. “Everything we did,” Jabri continues, “was a very open dialogue about music, about aesthetics, about ethics in art.”

The same year that Jabri did his Radcliffe fellowship, he was commissioned to write music for the Cecilia Chorus of New York, a 105-person chorus that has been around for more than 100 years, to be premiered at Carnegie Hall. He invited Brother to write the piano reduction, and she gladly accepted the opportunity. 

Zreiqat and Ebied

Also in the fall of 2016, Hala Zreiqat, who is originally from Jordan, came to Radcliffe from Australia. A professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Sydney, Zreiqat spent her fellowship year working to advance collaborative research ventures and build educational and industry linkages between Australia and the United States in the field of musculoskeletal disorders and biomaterials research and development (R and D).

Mohamed Ebied, who came to Harvard from Egypt, was looking for a longer-term research opportunity and was drawn to Zreiqat’s project. His father is an orthopedic surgeon, and he was planning to concentrate in bioengineering (which he did).

The two connected via the RRP program and, along with another Harvard student, worked on a review manuscript discussing current approaches to bone tissue engineering at the interface between biology and engineering, which is now published.

Over the course of the year, he and Zreiqat developed an excellent working relationship, with Zreiqat later calling the RRP program “a once in a lifetime experience for both fellows and students.”

“A once in a lifetime experience for both fellows and students.”

Zhen and Brooks

Mei Zhen and Donald Brooks’s story goes back even further: they met in fall 2013. Zhen, a biologist, came to Radcliffe from Toronto and began work on what turned out to be a 10-year project reconstructing the developmental connectome of a model organism called C. elegans. Translation: she and her team mapped the nervous system of a small worm as it developed.

Brooks, who went on to major in molecular and cellular biology, became an RRP when he was only a first-year. He had just finished a summer fellowship where he was also working with C. elegans and decided to apply, even though his primary area of interest was infectious disease.

Brooks thought the partnership might be an opportunity to get some additional lab experience and help cover tuition costs. For her part, Zhen didn’t know what to expect. She’d never had a first-year working for her before.

Brooks, along with another research partner who was a senior at Harvard College, worked together printing out electron microscopy images, taping them together and manually tracing the connections between neurons, then using software to create three-dimensional images.

Their time together resulted in a very close relationship, which Zhen later used as a model when working with other undergraduates. “Donald was the first person that truly convinced me people who have a big heart do exist,” she says.

Neither Jabri (right) nor Brother (left) expected the RRP relationship to be so close—or so fruitful. Graphic by Melissa Rico/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

Music Connects

“Music is a kind of art that connects people,” says Jabri. After his fellowship, he went back to Poland, but he and Brother stayed in touch. When she graduated, Brother proudly sent Jabri a video of her recital. “I was so happy to see, over the course of four years [of study], this wonderful improvement and beautiful interpretation of the pieces [she played],” he gushes.

Jabri later moved to Cambridge, where Brother lives as well, and the two met up recently. “Who knows,” says Jabri, “one day I might teach at a university and need a pianist… or maybe I’ll need someone with Emily’s experience to do a presentation. This is something beautiful.”

Brother grew to admire Jabri and was keen to know about the new projects he’s working on. “I play a lot of music from dead composers,” she says with a laugh. “It’s really exciting to know a living composer.” Both say they became friends through the program.

Despite the distance, Ebied (right) says he was very comfortable reaching out to Zreiqat (left) again. Graphic by Melissa Rico/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

Staying in Touch through Science

Zreiqat, who has returned to Radcliffe several times as a summer fellow, has had multiple student research partners and stays in touch with all of them.

“Whenever they need anything, they know they can come back to me. It’s a special relationship that I would never forget,” Zreiqat says. “It’s like having a best friend. You don’t interact with them for years. And then once you see them, it’s like you’ve never left.” Ebied now lives in New York, and Zreiqat has gone back to Australia. Despite the distance, Ebied says he was very comfortable reaching out again, asking for a recommendation, or checking in.

Zhen’s and Brooks’s career paths have diverged: Brooks lives in Geneva and is the COVID-19 vaccination data lead at the World Health Organization, while Zhen is back in Toronto and continues to study C. elegans. Still, they’ve also kept in contact. Zhen read Brooks’s thesis when he graduated, and even more surprising, Brooks ended up making a connection with Zhen’s daughter Jade.

As an undergraduate, Brooks founded a nongovernmental organization called Initiative: Eau to improve water sanitation and hygiene in developing areas, with a focus on West Africa. While she was in high school, Jade had an interest in the subject. Zhen suggested she reach out to Brooks, which resulted in her volunteering with Initiative: Eau for around six months.

Zhen (right) read Brooks’s thesis when he graduated, and Brooks (left) made a professional connection with Zhen’s daughter Jade. Graphic by Melissa Rico/Harvard Radcliffe Institute

The Power of Mentorship and Shared Learning

All the fellows and research partners we spoke with emphasized the importance and power of mentorship. But it was also clear that one key strength of the RRP program is that learning goes both ways. Brooks reflected on the importance of the connections he made as a research partner. “The experience working on the technical pieces [of the research] was hugely important and useful in helping me navigate where I want to go in terms of developing my science career,” he says. “But I really think it was the more human aspects that made the program so much more meaningful.”

For Zhen, mentorship is sharing life experience and expertise, making a small but important difference in someone’s life and, by extension, society as a whole. It’s even more rewarding than publishing a paper or receiving a grant, she says.

The RRP program also taught her to think beyond the narrow scope of the project she was working on and remember the purpose of the research. She’d never had an undergraduate student who was so focused on actively applying research to help people, as opposed to just obtaining lab results and publishing papers.

One key strength of the RRP program is that learning goes both ways.

“Donald really gave me a different perspective,” Zhen says. “I kept in touch because I wanted to know how students can simultaneously pursue research and the application of the research to help society. He gave me a lot of inspiration and actually makes me want to do something in that capacity.”

“I used to only take senior undergraduate students doing their theses,” she adds. “[But] after working with Donald, I made room and made time to recruit [younger] undergraduates into my group.” Her lab’s atmosphere has changed as a result.

Brother learned a great deal from Jabri—and not just about writing a piano reduction. “He was really open to teaching me all these other things that probably weren’t helping him with his primary research goals or coming up with the piano reduction,” she says.

And Jabri also learned a lot. He was used to working mainly with other composers, but after his year at Radcliffe, he says he’s now more open to working with people from different backgrounds.

Ebied was attracted to the Radcliffe program specifically because of the opportunity for one-on-one mentorship, but Zreiqat went above and beyond. Participating in the RRP program also made Ebied realize that he could apply his skill sets and interest in biology to other fields outside medicine. As a result, his career path shifted from going to medical school to working at a biotech startup.

“Hand[ing] the reins to the next generation” is just as important as the work itself, says Zreiqat. “What’s the point in doing what we are doing now if that’s not going to be continued?”

Sam Zuniga-Levy is the communications coordinator at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

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