Cervantes-Jaramillo is now a scientist focused on oncology research
Mindy Blodgett | HST
Grissel Cervantes-Jaramillo’s journey to becoming a scientist at Bristol Myers Squibb started in Cuba, where she grew up and began her undergraduate college career. Her path then passed through Florida, where she continued at the University of Miami, graduating with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology—finally landing in Cambridge, where she recently graduated from the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST) with a PhD in Medical Engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP).
She says it has been a challenging trip at times, and it is also one that made her unique in her HST cohort—but she says that ending up at HST, has taught her that “what’s most important is not to be afraid to put yourself out there, even if you are scared.”
Cervantes-Jaramillo was 19 when her family, seeking more opportunities, decided to move to Miami, where they had relatives. While she had been studying biochemistry in Cuba, the resources there were limited. Upon arrival at the University of Miami, she passed an intensive English course and then found out that while many of her science credits were accepted by the University of Miami, none of her electives were, and she was also missing critical research experience.
“The first few semesters were crazy,” she remembers. “I didn’t have a lot of the lab work I needed to have…and yet I began to think I would be interested in medicine, something that would have been too hard to do in Cuba.”
Seeking key lab experience, she joined the lab of Stephen Lee, a Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at the University of Miami, where she worked for two years on cancer cell research. There, she says, “I fell in love with research. I became interested in translational research, while I still had the bug for medical school.”
She shadowed an orthopedic surgeon to investigate whether medical school was an option. That experience showed her that while she enjoyed clinical work, she missed the creativity that comes with doing research. “I missed being able to think about scientific questions and to find the answers,” she says. “I loved interacting with patients…but I needed to design my own path forward.”
It was then, conferring with her advisors at Miami, that she decided to pursue a PhD that could blend her interests in scientific research and medicine, leading her to HST. “What I loved about HST was the translational aspects of the program, to be able to do research but to also be able to be in the hospital, to still be able to interact with patients,” she says.
Coming to the Boston area, after spending her life up to that point in tropical climates, was a definite adjustment, she remembers. And it wasn’t just the harsher weather that took adjustment. She says that moving from Cuba to Miami was difficult, though made easier by proximity to family and the large Hispanic population in Miami and at the university. While in Miami, she learned to speak English socially, not just for technical purposes, and she found it rewarding to be exposed to different cultures.
In Boston, she didn’t see as many people who looked like her, and her first winter, well, “it was a lot” she says.
“But it was fun,” she remembers. “You know, it’s your first snow, which is so exciting. And I got the coat and the boots. But March was the hardest! That was rough, because you’re ready to be done with winter, and then you get a terrible snowstorm or something.”
“But I loved it, seeing all the seasons for the first time,” she says. “Going on hikes, getting to know my classmates—that was great.”
She missed her family upon arriving at HST, but she said that she quickly found that her HST classmates and the academic office staff were supportive and provided help when she needed it. Like all HST students, she had to learn to maneuver through the search for a lab, eventually landing in the Jacks Lab, run by Tyler Jacks, Daniel K. Ludwig Scholar and David H. Koch Professor of Biology at MIT.
Succeeding as an HST MEMP PhD student has been important to Cervantes-Jaramillo, but she also has prioritized participating in the efforts to increase diversity in the pool of students from underrepresented groups who apply to the HST program.
She says that being one of the only Hispanic persons in any setting can be difficult, and she believes that the only way to change the representation at HST is to encourage more students from diverse backgrounds to apply. To that end, she has helped with recruiting efforts online and in person at conferences.
“I came to HST to make a difference,” she says. Improving diversity in academic and professional settings, “will take time, and be gradual. But I think that things are heading in that direction, and it’s going to change more over the next few years,” with hopes for higher representation from Hispanic and other underrepresented groups. “There’s a lot more work to do, from both students and faculty, to tackle these issues and to reach out to these communities a little bit more.”
In the meantime, she says she is happy working at Bristol Myers Squibb, and beyond that, “I don’t have a clear path forward yet, because there are so many options for what I could do with my career, and I’m still learning. But I know that I want to stay in the field of oncology research, and to continue to bring together my interests in medicine and technology, and to make a difference for patients.”