Campus Life

A microbial bridge to MIT

Two Mexican graduate students’ paths to Cambridge

Editor’s Note: Any student new to MIT experiences a certain level of culture shock, whether they enter as an undergraduate or as a graduate student. For graduate students from underrepresented backgrounds, this shock can be even greater. This article tells the story of two such students.

Bernie Cervantes and Mariana Matus both speak so highly of microbes that you almost forget you are discussing microscopic creatures that most people know nothing about. In addition to sharing a love of microbes, they also share the experience of coming to MIT by way of Mexico. Cervantes, a first-year graduate student studying synthetic biology, grew up in Tijuana, where he lived until the end of high school. Matus is a fourth-year PhD candidate in computational and systems biology. Their stories are different from each other in many ways, but also contain many common threads.

Two Beginnings in Science

Matus and Cervantes both seem to enjoy challenges in their academic paths, starting with their choices of schools. When Cervantes arrived in the U.S., he chose to study at a community college with a low Spanish-speaking population to force himself to improve his English. He attended Orange Coast College for three years before transferring to the University of California, Berkeley to study bioengineering. Similarly, Matus chose to leave her comfort zone and attend a college far from home.

“I had fellowship opportunities in my hometown, but I left and went to the capital. It was a good decision, but back then, it did feel a bit crazy,” she said. It was highly unusual for people in her family to go far from home, but she opted to pursue a program that was only available near Mexico City. She studied in Mexico for her undergraduate degree and came to MIT after finishing a master’s in the Netherlands.

The path to a research career was clearer for Cervantes than for Matus. Cervantes’ father is a doctor, so he had always planned to go into science.

“I think I decided to go to grad school a long time ago,” he said. “Back in 2009, I was in my community college biology professor’s office when she stopped our conversation to shuffle papers on her desk and find a pamphlet for [UC Irvine’s] Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program. Bridges is a program geared toward minorities in science. It recruits minorities from community colleges and provides them with a ton of resources to help them transfer to 4-year institutions and maintain a career in science.”

He applied and was accepted, and spent the next summer working in a biology lab. “This first experience got the research bug stuck inside me. People tend to look back at specific moments that changed everything … Getting into Bridges was one of those moments.”

Matus, on the other hand, considered many different fields for college. “I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was considering medicine, mechanical engineering, business administration, everything,” she said. In the end, she decided to focus on genetics.

Unlike students in the U.S., she was not choosing between 10 or more colleges with similar programs — the genome science program was the first of its kind in Latin America. “I chose it because the syllabus looked the most interesting, not because I knew it was what I wanted to do.” Her choice, like Cervantes’, ended up being one that changed her life.

Because it was a small, new program, she had great access to research opportunities. “Basically, the best researchers in Mexico were giving me classes. We didn’t have teaching labs, so they opened their doors to let us do actual research with them. After that, it was clear to me that you have to go to grad school to continue research.”

She again took an adventurous step and applied for master’s programs across the Atlantic in Europe. After a few months of anxious waiting, she received a competitive fellowship from the Mexican government to attend Wageningen University in the Netherlands, an agricultural university with world experts in plant science and microbiology. Many of her peers stayed in Mexico for graduate work, but she wanted to explore a new place.

Once she settled into her master’s program, she found her passion: microbiology. “Microbes do so much. They are so powerful. But as an undergrad, pure microbiology was not an option,” she explained.

Like Matus, Cervantes also appreciates the power of working with microbes. “My research is focused on synthetic biology. One of the things that we do is genetically engineer microbial organisms to produce chemicals, biofilms, other things of interest. I basically make microbes do stuff for us,” he said. “The type of chemistry that you can accomplish inside a microbe is different from what you can do elsewhere.”

Paths to MIT

They both chose to continue experimenting with microbes by pursuing PhD programs, but Matus did not have her sights set on MIT. She enjoyed her time in the Netherlands so much that she wanted to stay in Europe for a three-year PhD program.

“Europe had been great. I loved it there. I had been accepted at [The University of] Cambridge, with funding secured, and the three-year programs really appealed to me.” Part of what held her back from applying to U.S. schools was the time commitment required for a PhD here. “The idea of doing five or six more years [instead of three] was daunting.”

Nonetheless, after some encouragement by her principal investigator (PI) in the Netherlands, Matus applied to MIT. She first used MIT’s Open CourseWare as a master’s student. “I found OpenCourseWare, so I took physics and a few other classes. A university that wants to make classes available to anyone in the world deserves respect.”

“It was never my dream to come to MIT. I applied on the last day,” she said, laughing at her procrastination. She continued, “I never even thought [MIT] would accept me. It was not in my plans. MIT was the only university in the U.S. that I applied to.”

Matus was shocked when she found out that she was accepted. Suddenly, she had a tough decision in front of her. When she visited campus, she loved the Computational and Systems Biology Program, but was still hesitant to commit to five more years of school. She convinced herself to go for it by thinking about her long-term goals.

She explained, “I said to myself, ‘What am I going to do when I am 60 years old? What am I going to tell myself?’ I decided, ‘Okay, let’s go on this adventure.’”

When Cervantes applied to graduate schools, he was almost certain that he wanted to come to MIT because he had participated in the MIT Summer Research Program (MSRP) here. The program aims to provide summer research experiences to underrepresented minorities and underserved students from outside the Institute, like Cervantes. Undergraduate participants are paired up with faculty, postdocs, and advanced graduate students in a lab that matches their research interests. In addition to their research experiences, the undergraduates are exposed to weekly research presentations and seminars about useful topics.

Cervantes’ PI at Berkeley prompted him to apply to MSRP.

“She encouraged her students to get different experiences during the summers — experiences that were not inside her lab,” he said. “She’s been extremely important in helping me pursue many of my goals. Going to college is fundamental in preparing for your career, but leaving your college’s bubble once a year gives you perspective and helps you re-adjust your goals and dreams. MSRP convinced me to aim higher.”

Cervantes’ mentor played a large part in his summer experience at MIT.

“The graduate student mentor that I had during MSRP is now my roommate and very good friend,” he said. “He was a great mentor, with a lot of patience and very interested in making sure I was learning new stuff. I remember the first week at the lab with him was like a cooking show. He prepared a whole experiment in stages to make sure I got exposure to all different steps of the process.” That mentor is now a postdoc at Harvard.

Cervantes hopes to be involved with MSRP again soon, this time as a mentor. When he applied to MIT for graduate school, he felt “biased in a way” because he already had a sense of what everyday life was like at MIT. “[MSRP] is probably one of the best programs that I know. The program was immersive … they made you feel special the whole time, and it was very fun.” Cervantes enjoyed “every single detail” of working in the Prather Lab, and felt more prepared to start the PhD program because of it. “It gives you a really good insight into what graduate school would look like.”

Settling into MIT

In everyday life at MIT, neither Cervantes nor Matus feel like they are treated differently because of their backgrounds. Matus pointed out that having other women from underrepresented backgrounds makes her feel more comfortable in lab. “I really don’t feel conscious of my race or of feeling different, I don’t say, ‘Oh, here I am being Mexican.’ Our teams are full of women from other countries. I’m not the only one there, so I don’t feel alone.”

That said, some jokes or references do go over her head. “Sometimes I do feel a bit disconnected from certain cultural events. I do feel a bit of that cultural distance to people here. I’m getting better at understanding the culture here, but it’s complex. I am almost there, understanding it and being part of it, but I don’t know if I will ever truly understand it.”

That culture shock combined with feelings of insecurity made her first year in Cambridge tough. “It took a few years for MIT to feel like home. Especially my first year. The typical feelings, that they made a mistake and I don’t belong here.” Matus was challenged in her classes as a first-year. “I didn’t choose classes that I was already good at,” she said, adding that she sat in class with people who had been taking the subject “since high school.”

Cervantes already feels at home here and is already “getting settled and understanding how things work” at MIT. He does not identify as an international student, in part because he is a U.S. citizen. “I don’t have to go through most of the hurdles that international students have to go through. I’ve dealt with all the cultural hurdles, but not the financial challenges, so I don’t like to call myself an international student.” His microbiology program is small, but he has never felt isolated as the only Latino student in his cohort.

Much like Matus, Cervantes had to adjust to some aspects of American culture when he first arrived in the U.S. “Everything that you do is viewed slightly differently. Even the way you say hi to someone is different. Normally I would hug and kiss someone when I meet them. Someone else had to explain to me that it’s different here.” He said that living with his sister was helpful, even though she was in school too and was very busy. “It was useful to have someone there that understands it, someone that knows the area.”

Cervantes is having an easier time with the transition into classes at MIT than Matus had, perhaps because he has always planned to study microbes. He is enjoying his research and has been impressed with the biology department.

“It’s great to be taking classes that I care about,” he said, contrasting his graduate course load with his undergraduate classes. At Berkeley, he had to take many general science courses; now, he takes microbiology classes applicable to his research with the small cohort of first-year graduate students.

He continued, “Here, it’s very easy to interact with faculty, the ratio of faculty and postdocs to students is much better.”

Both Cervantes and Matus emphasized how much the support of their respective labs has improved their experiences, and spoke highly of forming a strong network of friends and colleagues. Getting into the groove of research made Matus feel more at home. “I found my place when I found my own research direction, obviously with support from the lab.” Her research advisors helped her through the challenging periods.

“One of them talks to me on a personal level. I remember this phrase he told me. ‘When you come to MIT, we accept you as a rough diamond, but the beauty of MIT is that it is going to produce all these jewels, but each of them are different, and we don’t expect you to be perfect.’ For me, that was so liberating. I started to feel more and more comfortable,” said Matus.

Cervantes has made many of his friends in classes and in his lab group, and looks forward to branching out more from MIT as he gets settled. “It is no secret that good mentors and good extra-curricular activities are correlated with a happy academic career,” said Cervantes. He credits those “forces” and access to strong programs for multicultural students with his current happiness as a graduate student.

After MIT

As Cervantes and Matus look to the future, neither of them expects to return to Mexico soon. One challenge unique to students from underserved communities is a lack of career prospects close to home. Cervantes is prepared for “home” to be far away from his parents, who still live in Tijuana, for quite some time.

“People always ask me if I would go back [to Mexico],” Cervantes said. “I always say that I would retire in Mexico, but for the rest of my career, I think I will stay here in the United States. Having a career in biotechnology is a lot easier in the U.S. than it is in Mexico,” he explained, referring to opportunities and funding in the synthetic biology field that are unavailable in Tijuana. Cervantes hopes to continue using microbes to produce chemical compounds that are helpful to people.

Matus shared this sentiment, “Nobody in my family had ever done anything related to science. In Mexico, it is already kind of rare, so no one in my family had studied science … I didn’t know that science was a career.” She is not sure what her next steps are after graduation, and is unsure if those plans will include Mexico.

“I thought for sure that I would not go back [to Mexico], but this past year I started a few projects with people over there, and it feels good! That sensation that my work is benefitting people in my country … it just makes me happy.” Her current work focuses on wastewater treatment and analysis of the human microbiome as part of the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics.

Both Matus and Cervantes spoke to the fact that although many Mexican academic institutions do not have the resources to support the research that they want to do right now, that might change in the near future. “I see the country growing in so many ways,” said Matus.

She also said that she found people in Mexico to be happier than people are here.

“Apparently we are one of the happiest countries in the world, and I can believe it,” she said. “I went home for Christmas break, and on January 6th we celebrate the Dia de los Reyes [Day of the Three Kings]. The whole city was out, musicians on the street, people dancing, and you realize it’s amazing. There are problems with super low wages, insecurity, healthcare access, but people still take the time to celebrate, and they really mean it.”

She misses being surrounded by that kind of positivity. “That intrinsic happiness is one of the key descriptions of Mexico. I think I’ve always had that in me, but I have lost some of it from being away. People really appreciate the small things in life in Mexico. Here, the fact that my webpage took two extra seconds to load makes me want to yell. Or I get angry because I have to wait 10 minutes to text my friend because my phone died.”

Matus will have to make some decisions about her future in the next few months. But first, she has to finish her PhD. She already lot of ideas about the best ways to make it through a graduate program. “It’s important to be patient. A PhD takes half a decade of your life. Everyone lives that process differently. Do your thing, be patient, and it will be fine! We’re all here for a reason, and it’s going to be great!”

Gabi Serrato Marks is a graduate student in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.