Inaugural symposium draws diverse scientists and underrepresented voices to MIT


MIT’s biology community recently welcomed eight postdocs – Catalyst Fellows – to campus for the inaugural Catalyst Symposium.

Catalysts speed up reactions, and the symposium aims to accelerate progress on inclusive diversity – not just at MIT, but at top research institutions across the country, according to Professor Amy Keating, head of the biology department.

“To make new discoveries and expand our understanding of life, we seek colleagues and interns who are curious, persistent, creative, resourceful, insightful, determined, collaborative, generous and ambitious,” says Keating. “To find these exceptional people, you have to search widely. We need to look further than we have in the past.

The symposium is part of an effort to expose the Department of Biology to outstanding candidates from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in academic research. The three-day symposium included research presentations by Catalyst Fellows, one-on-one meetings with faculty members, panel discussions on the faculty search process and the experiences of young faculty in the department, and social events. Each Catalyst Fellow was matched with a faculty mentor.

Research presentations ranged from molecular to behavioral: Krishna Mudumbi from Yale School of Medicine presented “Probing the kinetics of EGFR signaling: why timing matters”; Coral Yishan Zhou from the University of California, Berkeley presented “Mechanisms of Mitotic Chromosome Scaling in Xenopus;” Andre Toussaint from Columbia University presented “Neurobiology of Addiction and Tactile Sensation;” Sofia Quinodoz from Princeton University presented “Probing the Nuclear Organization and Functions of Condensates at the Genome Scale”; Junior West from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine presented “Claudin 7 limits cancer invasion and metastasis by suppressing smooth muscle actin networks;” Shan Meltzer of Harvard Medical School presented “Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms of Tactile Circuitry Formation;” José Reyes of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center presented “Catching p53 in the act of tumor suppression”; and Begüm Aydin from Rockefeller University presented “Cell Plasticity in the Enteric Nervous System”.

Iain Cheeseman, associate department head, Herman and Margaret Sokol Professor of Biology and senior fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, said what stood out from the event was a “fantastic celebration of amazing science”.

“I loved the presentations and the great range of scientific approaches, research questions and different ideas,” he says. “These discussions focused on areas of research that are not currently represented in our department, so it was great to have this exposure to these new ways of thinking and hearing from these future leaders.”

Cheeseman was also a faculty mentor for Catalyst Fellow Yishan Zhou. Each Catalyst Fellow was matched with a faculty member based on common scientific interests and matched with those who could provide support and feedback on the Fellow’s academic journeys.

Fellows were selected based on current faculty nominations and scholarly correspondence within the department. They began their time at MIT by connecting with their mentor professors over dinner, then giving presentations on their research the next day. Lively Q&A sessions followed each conversation, which served as the basis for further conversations and potential collaborations. The department also organized panels of junior and senior professors. Fellows heard from junior faculty who have recently experienced the job search process and senior faculty who have been involved in selecting candidates who would be invited for interviews. The goal of both panels was to provide Fellows with information that would help them succeed in their own job searches.

“The Catalyst Symposium was a great opportunity to bring in incredibly talented postdocs from across the country to share their research with our community. Our long-term goal is to promote and support scientists from underrepresented groups as they transition into faculty positions – many of the connections and collaborations emerging from these three days will hopefully help us achieve that goal,” says Sebastian Lourido, associate professor of biology and senior fellow at the Whitehead Institute, who was part of the event’s organizing committee.


The event also allowed current graduate students to interact with Catalyst Fellows; some were curious about what factors went into selecting fellows for a postdoctoral position.

West says that during a doctorate, graduate students develop three things: a scientific question or questions; a specific system to answer these questions; and a specific methodology.

“The advice I was given was that when you move from a PhD to a postdoc, you should consider keeping two of those things and changing one,” West says. “It’s very important to start with a solid foundation, but changing one thing also gives you the opportunity to grow as a scientist and expand your skills.”

In her postdoctoral fellowship, West studies tumor metastasis and hopes to dissect the signaling network of a gene whose loss is correlated with aggressive forms of breast cancer. West says it’s important not to get so caught up in the endgame — the distant document or the grant proposal — that one ceases to appreciate the triumph of daily discoveries.

Quinodoz noted the importance of networking during graduate school, including at scientific conferences. Attending a conference helped her secure her own postdoctoral position: her current principal investigator heard her speak at a conference and invited her for an interview.

The 2022 Catalyst Symposium was planned and coordinated by Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Manager Hallie Dowling-Huppert; the DEI Faculty Committee, including organizing committee members Lourido, Jacqueline Lees and Michael Laub; headquarters staff of the Department of Biology; Matthew Vander Heiden, director of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research; and Keating.

In future years, Dowling-Huppert says they will try to foster more of a cohort environment among fellows and also give fellows more time to interact with current postdocs at MIT and others in the department, as the Establishing these relationships early in their career will support them in the short and long term.

Yadira Soto-Feliciano, assistant professor of biology and intramural professor at the Koch Institute who was paired with Reyes, says building in some time for fellows to explore MIT and the greater Boston area would be a welcome addition. next year since some of the fellows were visiting the city for the first time. She says she plans to keep in touch with Reyes in the future.

“I think the Catalyst Symposium has been a fantastic platform for these postdoctoral researchers to experience MIT in a more intimate way,” she says. “I’m sure this experience will benefit their short and long-term success, and I wouldn’t be surprised if any collaborations were born out of these interactions.”

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