Articles by Alissa D'Gama

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I can’t believe it is already August! My apologies for not posting sooner, but I have a very long wrap-up post for all of you, and I may occasionally post to let you know what post-college life is like.

To finish up my previous posts, I started junior year excited to pursue an MD/PhD and registered for the SAT of medical school: the MCAT. Most of junior year was spent juggling classes and lab with studying, and I was ridiculously happy to be over with the MCAT when I took it at the beginning of reading period in May. From there I jumped straight into applications, which are centrally organized through AMCAS. The summer between junior and senior year I was trying to get data for my senior thesis in lab and writing draft after draft of essays for my primary application (which gets sent to all medical schools) and my secondary applications (which are specific to each medical school). In general, MD/PhD applicants follow a similar timeline to MD applicants, but we have more letters of recommendation (including a letter from every lab we have every worked in) and generally more essays, with the extra essays focused on our research and why we want to get two degrees and stay in school for a really long time. We also have longer interview days – I had anywhere from six to twelve interviews over a two to three day period per school, so fall of senior year I was lucky if I was able to make it to class (I ended up missing over forty days of school, and spent a lot of time getting work done on plane flights).

As I waited to hear back from programs (although some MD/PhD programs are rolling, many wait until march to release all of their spots as each school as so few spots) I wrote and rewrote my senior thesis, had it bound at kinko’s (which is open 24 hours!) and turned it in to the MCB Office. The process of writing my thesis was the most intellectually satisfying experience of my time as an undergraduate, and I am very grateful to my PI and postdoc for the time they put into mentoring me—I learned so much about neuroscience and kinase signaling pathways, but also about science as a profession. After turning my thesis in, I had the opportunity to revisit some of the MD/PhD programs I was deciding between, meet with professors I have admired throughout college, and hang out with the friends I had made during the application process. And then it was time for senior week and graduation!

My roommates and I at the Picnic! (courtesy Cara ’11)


It doesn’t feel too different to have graduated from college just yet but I will definitely miss Mather Dining Hall and not having to cook for myself! Of course, I didn’t go very far—I am now an MD/PhD candidate in the Health Sciences and Technology Program at Harvard Medical School/MIT (and all but one of my roommates and most of my blockmates and friends are still in the Cambridge/Boston area). This summer we started off the program with a summer course and a graduate school lab rotation, and in less than two weeks I will be getting my first white coat!

I was so lucky to graduate from college and be able to start the next phase of my life that I am incredibly excited about, and I hope the class of 2015 has a wonderful first year at Harvard College—it may not seem like it now, but the next four years will go by fast, so do your best to make the most of them!

If you have any questions about the MD or MD/PhD route, feel free to contact me at Alissa_D’ (Yes, my email has an underscore and an apostrophe!)

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As promised, here is part two of how I decided what to do with my life. Sophomore year was definitely the hardest in terms of classes. Because most into and mid-level life sciences concentration classes have lecture+section+lab I had 25 hours of class per week balanced with working in lab and participating in extracurriculars. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the classes I took—the classes started going deeper into the how and why of things, and I found out that subjects I thought would be scary (organic chemistry) were actually a lot of fun. In particular, my MCB and organic chemistry classes showed me how research done at the bench could be translated to the bedside and vice versa. What really solidified my decision to pursue an MD/PhD was what happened after sophomore year, when I had the opportunity to spend the summer in Tokyo, Japan through the Harvard Summer School Program at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute.

It was really nice to sleep in a little during the summer – I would normally get up between 9 and 10 am and eat a melon bread from the 7-11 across the street (7-11 in Tokyo is like the 24-7 CVS in Harvard Square. It has everything!) along with a glass of orange juice (Vitamin C!). Then I walked the five minutes from the international house to the central research building where I worked in the Lab for Alzheimer’s Disease studying potential drugs. While I was at lab, the cleaning staff would not only bring me fresh towels and empty my trash, but they made my bed! It was like living in a hotel, especially with the tiny bars of wrapped hand soap.

The weekends had me armed with a subway map as I ventured out to explore Tokyo – going hiking amid the ruins of ancient Japanese castles, watching fireworks during the Hanabi festival with over 900,000 other people (yes, there were really that many people there and we had to get there very early to get a spot!), making okonomiyaki — which looks like an English pancake but is filled with meat, vegetables, and cheese, getting woken up by an earthquake or two, and taking a nine hour overnight bus ride to the temples in Kyoto (including The Golden Temple, which is literally plates with gold). The coolest thing I experienced were tornado potatoes – the street vendors took a knife and cut around the potato in swirls, then put in on a stick and dipped it in melted cheese. So good.

Tornado Potatoes at the Hanabi Fireworks Festival with Stella ’10!

When I arrived at Narita Airport at the beginning of June, I only knew how to say “Good afternoon” in Japanese and how to eat ramen with chopsticks. By the time I left in August, I could have a basic conversation with my lab members and had discovered that the ramen in Japan is much better than the fifty-cent packs from CVS – in fact, I even had “Spanish-style” ramen with melted cheese and tomatoes at a café in Yotsuya. One of the great things about Harvard is the opportunity it provides students to go abroad during both the summer and the academic year to learn about other cultures. Back on campus, I have continued to research in labs on campus and have explored other cultures through Core and General Education classes that take me from the courts of Florence to the streets of London. I also arrived back in Boston with a renewed excitement for research and the decision to pursue an MD/PhD.

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This is my last week of class! I can’t believe it, and although I’m really excited for what comes next I’m also sad to be leaving. Hopefully, those of you coming to Harvard College next year (class of 2015!!!) will find these series of posts useful if you are considering medical school, graduate school, or a combination.

When I arrived in Harvard Yard four years ago, I thought medicine and science were pretty cool. Like many of you, I had volunteered in a hospital in high school, and I felt at home there (I also didn’t faint when observing surgeries and enjoyed watching my blood get drawn as a child, strange as that sounds). I had the opportunity to work in a biophysics lab at the end of high school, and was excited to join a lab in the MCB Department when I got to Harvard (which meant I didn’t have to ride the M2 shuttle back and forth between my dorm and Longwood like many of my friends!) And yes, I had taken some AP science classes in high school, but my freshman fall I didn’t even know what an MD/PhD was (you can get both degrees? And the NIH pays you?!)

I took Life Sciences 1a and 1b–like many of you will, edited lots of drafts in Expos, and spent quality time in Lamont Library (open 24 hours!) Yet probably the two most formative experiences were getting to know my lab and being matched with my physician mentor. From my PI and the postdoctoral fellow who mentored me (for all four years!) I learned not only about PCR and how to run a gel, but slowly but surely, how to design experiments and think like a scientist. Along the way, I tried to figure out how to balance classes, extracurriculars, lab, and the rest of my life. My first summer, I was able to participate in PRISE—the Program for Research in Science and Engineering — along with a community of like-minded undergraduates, which you can read about here on the blog I wrote for the Office of Career Services. Looking back, I made some of my closest friends that summer, and many will be continuing on with me to medical school or graduate school. My physician mentor was incredible, and took the time to take me on rounds at the NICU and teach me about data collection and clinical research and what it means to be a physician. Spending time in the hospital with him strengthened my desire to go into pediatrics and learn more about how humans develop and how we get diseases when things go wrong. Little by little, I realized I wanted to pursue an MD/PhD, and I started looking into how I might spend the next eight or so years of my life.

To be continued!

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It is finally here! I just got back from spending the better part of my day helping to register the many admitted students who are visiting Harvard College this weekend. This week has been full of nostalgia, as I first attended a revisit for medical school and then switched gears to helping coordinate Visitas for the College. Both reminded me of why I love Harvard: the people!

To all the admitted students visiting this weekend, make sure to spend time with current students and with the students who will be your classmates for the next four years, whether you meet them at an event like the Coffeehouse tonight or sit down next to them while grabbing a meal at Annenberg. I can still remember my visit to Harvard four years ago—I had a wonderful host (who I am still friends with) who took me on a tour of the Harvard campus (all the way from the Quad to Mather House!), showed me how to make a panini at Quincy DHall, answered all my little questions, and took me to a campus production of Chicago. I remember feeling like there were so many things to do, and so little time to take it all in–and I knew I couldn’t wait to come back and have four years to explore everything!

The Admissions Office, the Undergraduate Admissions Council, and many other staff, faculty, and students on campus have spent months putting together Visitas, so take advantage of the events available to you to explore all the aspects of Harvard, from academic open houses and panels to extracurricular meetings and social events like the Prefrosh Palooza (I am biased, but it will be amazing!) and Sunday Sundaes. Ask lots of questions, even ones you think are silly (I, for example, was for some reason very concerned about where to buy computer paper—and it turns out there is a Staples in the Square). We hope that you will fall in love with Harvard just like we did, and come to call it your home for the next four years.


Congratulations to the class of 2015! We all remember when we found out we had been accepted to Harvard, and we know you have a big decision ahead of you. I hope many of you were able to get some of your questions answered during out Phone-a-thon this past weekend, when dozens of undergraduates got together to call every admitted student. Of course, we all hope you are also coming to Visitas (in less than two weeks!) and we have lots of exciting things planned for you!

Since Kate talked about the top 10 things to do when visiting Harvard, I am going to talk about the top 10 things to do in Boston. It is often said that undergraduates get caught up in the “Harvard bubble” and don’t head out into Boston as often as they would like, but when you do get a chance to cross the Charles, it is well worth it! There are still so many things I hope to do before graduation, and here are some of my favorites:

1. Take a walk around Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden! Depending on the season, you can take a romantic ride on a Swan Boat or go ice-skating at Frog Pond. During the sunny months, vendors selling Italian ices, hot dogs, and pretzels, and groups of street performers, line the paths and create a great atmosphere.

2. North End: The North End and surrounding area include historical points of interest like Faneuil Hall and the Old North church, as well as many yummy Italian restaurants and the famous Mike’s Pastries, which has *the* best cannolis.

3. Theater District: Just next to the Commons, the Boylston Theater District features typical movie theaters as well as Broadway-like shows (The Lion King, my favorite, visited last year!) and special shows like The Blue Man Group.

4. Restaurant Week: Twice a year, Boston restaurants participate in restaurant week, a week when lots of fancy restaurants  feature fixed price lunch and dinner menus. My favorite is Top of the Hub, a restaurant located on the top floor of The Prudential Center, with amazing views of Boston and Cambridge.

5. Visit the wharf and harbor: During the summer, friends and families have picnics on the grassy lawns in front of the Ocean, visit the New England Aquarium (where you can see really cute penguins!), or take a whale-watching trip.

6. Museums! Take advantage of the many museums in Boston, several of which you can get into free with your Harvard ID. A hidden treasure within Harvard is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and there are many other art and history museums on campus. In Boston, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Science are must-sees!

7. Newbury Street: Essentially the 5th Avenue of Boston, Newbury street features everything from a four floor Forever 21 (I was a little too excited when it opened a few months ago) to big names like Prada, Marc Jacobs, Hermes, and Vera Wang. The street also features dozens of wonderful restaurants, including a Pinkberry and soon to open Berryline (we all love our froyo!)

8. Boston played a large role in American Independence, and one of the best ways to take in all the main historical points is to walk along The Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile brick trail that winds throughout Boston and stops at locations like the site of the Boston Massacre.

9. Duck Duck…Tour! Duck Tours are a classic Boston tour in WWII amphibious landing vehicles – in other words, the tour starts on lands and then takes you into the water. These tour are great for when your family visits!

10. 4th of July: If you plan to spend any of your summers at Harvard, 4th of July fireworks are one event you don’t want to miss. Spots are staked out on the Esplanade hours and hours in advance, and barges set off fireworks while the Boston Pops perform. It is a great time to hand out with friends and celebrate America.

Of course, there are lots of other things to do in Boston, but I hope this gives you a taste! I look forward to seeing many of you next weekend!!!


I have mentioned in previous posts that I have been spending a lot of time this semester working on my senior thesis (!)  I am happy to report that I turned it in last Monday and am excited for the rest of senior spring! Because I am a Molecular and Cellular Biology concentrator, the bulk of my thesis involved experiments in lab that I performed during my junior and senior years, and during the summer before senior year. This past semester, I then spent most of my time writing up my experiments and making figures (and doing a lot of editing!)

One of the things I realized as I finished up my thesis during Spring Break is that things generally take longer than you expect—which makes time management crucial to college (and most periods in life!). For example, on Sunday afternoon, I sat down to do a final read-through of my thesis. I expected it to take about an hour since I was just looking for spelling errors. Six hours later, I finally converted my Word document to a PDF and headed to Kinko’s to print out five copies. Two hours later, I had printed out five black and white copies, reprinted and inserted all the color figures, and had the copies spiral bound. It was awesome to see my thesis put together and ready to turn in!

The next morning, I headed to the MCB office to officially hand my copies to Tom Torello, the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies for MCB and CPB. Every concentration generally has a celebration when seniors turn in their thesis. MCB/CPB had lots of yummy drinks (including mimosas!) and homebaked cookies!

Although I forgot to take a picture with Tom, Eric ’11, and I (with Eric and I looking a bit tired…) here are somewhat representative pictures of the final stages of the senior thesis:

(1) Printing and binding the thesis!!! (My thesis!)

(2) Turning in the thesis!!! (Kevin ’11 with the Neurobiology Advisors Tamily and Ryan)

(3) The aftermath – my roommate Emma ’11 surrounded by (some of) the books she used in her thesis

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Today, Harvard Yard is quiet as most students have gone home (or to a warmer place than Cambridge) for spring break, but on Thursday the campus was filled with yelling, cheering, laughter and tears. Thursday was Housing Day – the day when freshmen at Harvard find out which of the upperclass Houses they have been placed in for the next three years!!! Freshmen can form a blocking group of up to eight people that are guaranteed placement into the same House, and can link with one other blocking group that they are guaranteed to be placed into the same neighborhood with.

On the morning of Housing Day, students from all of the Houses gather early in the morning to deck themselves out in House apparel and deliver letters to students assigned to their House, followed by lots of shouting and cheering in front of Annenberg Dining Hall. Here, for example, is the Mather contingent (the best, in my biased opinion!) Of course, since Housing Day is right before Spring Break, students often have papers and midterms due that day (as I did freshman year), but generally the entire campus comes together for Housing Day, with professors laughing along as mascots from the Houses storm big freshman classes like Ec 10 and LS1b.

In honor of housing day, I went through my photos and found group shots of my roommates and I from freshman, sophomore, and junior year. Freshman year, my roommates and I were part of three different blocking groups, which were placed in Mather, Dunster, and Cabot. Every semester, we have a freshman roommate reunion at Nine Tastes, the restaurant where we went for our first roommate dinner together freshman year (which is where we were going when this photo was taken!)

Sophomore year! Here are my roommates and I right before winter break, sometime in the midst of reading period and finals, in the common room of our lowrise room in Mather.

Junior year! Here are my roommates (and our new roommate for senior year) right after the room lottery. We tend to have the worst luck, and got the lowest number in the lottery for junior year and for senior year. (Each house has a lottery to decide the order for picking rooms for the next year). We still ended up on the seventh floor of Mather tower this year though, so it was all good 🙂

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This past weekend, I took a break from thesis writing and went to the 26th annual Cultural Rhythms with a couple of my friends. Every year, the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations puts on a wonderful show celebrating Harvard’s diversity and awards an Artist of the Year. This year, the artist was Shakira, of Hips Don’t Lie and Waka Waka (the official song of the 2010 World Cup!) fame. Needless to say, we were all super excited! Thankfully, we bought tickets early, and managed to get pretty good seats in Sanders Theater for the show. My friend Chris ’13 was even luckier, and won the lottery to get lunch with Shakira!!!

During the show, (which Shakira MC’ed!), a variety of different cultural groups from Harvard performed pieces, ranging from the Harvard Ballroom team and the Asian American Dance Troupe to the Kuumab Singers and Harvard Wushu (who had some crazy skills!) At the end, all the performance groups performed a fusion dance to Waka Waka and Shakira got up and danced along!

I walked away from the performance thinking about why I chose Harvard four years ago—in a big part, because of the students. Events like Cultural Rhythms showcase just one aspect of students at Harvard—everyone here comes from different backgrounds and has different interests, and I love seeing everyone pursue their passions.

Here’s Kevin ’11 (the co-director of CR last year) with Shakira!

Sorry for not posting in the past few weeks! I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I’m involved with a club on campus called HUBSS – the Harvard Undergraduate Biological Sciences Society. My official role is the co-Career Coordinator, which means I am in charge of organizing events like visits from life sciences companies and career panels. However, the entire board (which is largely composed of my blocking group!) works together to organize a lot of our events, including our recent Night at the Museum: Survival of the Fittest (yes, we like science a lot). In honor of Charles Darwins’s 202nd birthday, we worked with the Harvard Museum of Natural History to create an event where undergraduates could visit the museum after hours, enjoy mochi ice cream and local froyo favorite Berryline (with fresh fruit toppings!), and participate in behind-the-scenes tours of the museum collection.

To prepare for the event, I spent an afternoon walking through the museum exhibits (Harvard undergraduates get free admission with their ID card) and writing up questions related to Darwin and evolution for the scavenger hunt undergrads could participate in for the chance for winning gift certificates to a local sandwich shop (called Darwin’s Ltd!). HMNH is just one example of the amazing resources available to students at Harvard. Without the urging of my friend Jeremy ’11, an OEB concentrator who has been able to use some of the museum specimens for class projects, I probably would never have discovered how amazing the museum is. After my thesis is turned in, I plan to spend more time looking at all the exhibits, which include everything from dinosaur fossils to exquisitely crafter glass flowers in a special humidity-controlled room.

The night of the event, John ’11, Veronica ’11, and I walked to Trader Joe’s to pick up mochi ice cream. Thanks to a grant from the Undergraduate Council, we could buy $200 of mochi ice cream, which we learned meant filling our cart with 44 boxes of mochi (11 of each flavor – mango, green tea, strawberry, and chocolate)! Not surprisingly, we got some strange looks from the Trader Joe’s employees.

After lugging the boxes of mochi to the museum, we spent the night unwrapping the boxes for the 150 undergraduates who I hope had a pretty great time. It was a lot of fun to catch up with people I hadn’t seen for a while since we’ve all been buried in our laptops writing our thesis and finishing up research. Remember, take a break every once in a while and do something fun!

Picture by Caterina Yuan ‘11 – note the awesome fossil behind John, Veronica, and me!

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Although most of Harvard College was off campus during JTerm, some of us were braving the blizzards for our senior theses. Whether that meant hours in Widener with a stack of books and a laptop or hours in a lab with a pipette and a PCR machine, seniors could be seen eating in Annenburg inbetween doing experiments or writing another chapter.

Not everyone at Harvard does a senior thesis – it depends a lot on your concentration and whether you are interested in research. Theses can also take very different forms—my thesis, for example, is a write-up of the experiments I have been doing for the past several years in my lab, while for two of my roommates, their theses in Government and History of Science are based on their ideas about a piece of literature, a period of history, or a political philosophy. For me, I was excited to do a thesis since I have been working in a neurobiology lab since freshman year and I think it will be good practice for my actual PhD. It is also useful to think critically through my results and the reasoning that went into my experiments and learn to write effectively to convey my story to my audience.

Right now, I am spending a lot of time in lab wrapping up my experiments and interpreting my results, and I will soon transition to writing and figure-making mode. Luckily, a lot of my friends work in the same building as me, so we can visit each other and take breaks from our bench or computer screen. Here, for example, is Jeremy ’11  analyzing monarch butterfly migration and in his lab!

It was also pretty nostalgic to eat lunch and dinner in Annenburg during January. The dining hall is perfect for freshman year because your whole class is together and you get to meet lots of people you otherwise might not see if you were already divided into house dining halls. I got to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen for a while who were all on campus for Jterm like me! I really enjoyed hearing people summarize their theses-which were in so many different fields-and hear how excited they were about their work.

P.S. Upperclassmen are also allowed to eat at Annenburg during reading period, and we can eat breakfast there anytime 🙂

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