Mentor Mike Super
Michael Super, PhD
Senior Staff Scientist, Advanced Technology Team
Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University
Mentor, Summer Clinical & Translational Research Program
Harvard Catalyst Program for Faculty Development & Diversity Inclusion
Michael Super's research leverages protein engineering to design therapeutics and diagnostic devices to treat cancer, infectious, and immunological diseases. Prior to joining the Wyss Institute, Super spent 17 years in the biotechnology industry, where he focused on the design, development, and production of therapeutic antibodies for cancer and autoimmune diseases.
Mike Super, senior staff scientist at the Wyss Institute,
and intern Kia Byrd. (Credit: Harvard's Wyss Institute)
To recruit and retain students in the sciences--especially those from underrepresented student populations and minorities--mentorship is a critical, and ultimately a key strategy in fostering the growth of a diverse clinical and translational science community. This goal is the mission of the Harvard Catalyst Program for Faculty Development & Diversity Inclusion. Through two of its initiatives, college students and medical students are mentored in the laboratories of Harvard faculty. These signature programs--the Summer Clinical and Translational Research Program (SCTRP) and Visiting Research Internship Program (VRIP)--have been engaging students with faculty working on high-level scientific projects for the last six years, with mentors playing a leading role in inspiring this next generation of scientists.
Mentorship as Strategy for Fostering Team Science
"Science is no longer conducted by the lone genius in the lab," says Michael Super, PhD, senior staff scientist at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. "It's now led by large teams of people with different skill sets, working together and focused on a common problem. For that, we want the best minds, and if we don't reach out to and motivate young students, we'll be losing the best people."
A typical placement for mentees is working side by side with scientists and clinicians. However, ensuring success takes more than just placing students in the laboratory. "You have to include them, empower them, ask them what they think about a problem, and help guide them," says Super, who has been a mentor the past three summers for SCTRP, the program for college students. He's a firm believer in involving students in early-stage research and including their names on published research papers if they have participated in a discovery or invention.
Super and team worked on developing this spleen-like blood-cleansing device. (Credit: Harvard's Wyss Institute)
Teams Focused on a Common Problem
Super's research at the Wyss exemplifies the team approach, which is critical for mentees to learn about firsthand through these programs. His current team has developed a blood-cleansing device that can rapidly pull pathogens out of the bloodstream and treat sepsis, a leading cause of death in critically ill patients. There are 30 people involved in this project, including experts in chemistry, protein engineering, microbiology, and animal models. "To achieve our goal, we need to bring together the brightest, motivated minds," he points out. The students who have joined in this project may one day join the ranks of other bright minds who end up leading laboratories, advancing discoveries, and mentoring their own students.
Fortunately, both SCRTP and VRIP can boast numerous success stories. Take Elizabeth Ogurinde (SCTRP 2012), who credits her summer experience as a motivating factor in her decision to pursue an MD-PhD degree to bridge her interests in science and medicine. Currently a first-year student in the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP) at the Medical University of South Carolina, Ogurinde points out that the diverse opportunities presented to her at HMS allowed her to make the most of her summer here. "I had the opportunity to witness a very interdisciplinary (in terms of expertise) team work toward solving a common goal," she says. "Furthermore, I had the chance to learn how to develop a research question, and how to perform the experiments needed to resolve that question. In addition, being around other like-minded students in the summer program made the experience more memorable and gratifying." Fortunately for Ogurinde, Super has remained in touch with her since her summer at HMS, providing valuable advice and encouragement as she moves forward with her career plans. And her biggest takeaway?
"It is possible to do truly translational research. When starting a project, it is important to keep in mind how what is being done now can later impact future patients, and populations. By having this mindset at the earliest stages of a research project, you increase the likelihood of developing solutions and products that can have long-range effects on improving human health."
Students Engaged in Solving Real Problems
On any one day in the lab, students can be found working on various projects, and this summer, one group was focused on detecting contaminants in food, while others turned their attention to understanding how slippery surfaces can be used to prevent thrombotic events, while still others delved into macrobiotics. The SCTRP student, along with other students in Super's lab, presented progress updates at bi-weekly meetings along with the 30 Wyss researchers funded by DARPA to develop a therapy for sepsis. "They knew they were working on important work projects that will have clinical applications and provide practical solutions to real problems," he says. "There's no greater motivator for pursuing a career in the sciences." Super says he'd like to see more students take advantage of programs like SCTRP. "I think programs like these are win-wins for both the university and the students," he says.
Kia Byrd (SCTRP 2014), currently a first-year medical student here at HMS, was thrilled to participate as part of the team. "Being part of such a charismatic and ambitious cohort of interns was an extremely humbling experience, in that I learned so much from listening to the life experiences and daily triumphs and challenges of my fellow peers," she says. Her biggest takeaway was the ability to be open to exploring new methods and skill sets. "Prior to working at the Wyss Institute, I had never personally explored how a career in engineering could be integrated into a global biomedical context," she says. "Over the course of the summer, I not only gained experience in biological lab techniques, but also learned a great deal regarding establishment of animal models, initiation of clinical trials, and therapeutic device design and development."
Another intern, Kaspefoluwa "Sope" Oguntuyo (SCTRP 2013), is currently a post-baccalaureate research scholar at Mount Sinai, where he is working on a project using the CRISPR/Cas9 system to try to correct hemophilia A mutations as he simultaneously applies to MD/PhD programs. Oguntuyo appreciated Super's collaborative approach in working with the interns. "By starting a weekly lab meeting for summer interns, he created an informal forum for students to discuss ongoing projects in the lab, and enhanced our productivity by making recommendations regarding the direction of each of our projects."
Mentors of the Mentor
Super counts Don Ingber, MD, PhD, the founding director of the Wyss Institute and principal investigator on the federal DARPA-funded project Super is working on, as one of his own mentors. Another mentor who has played a leading role in influencing Super's work was his thesis advisor Malcolm Turner, PhD, FRCPath, who advised him in the late 1980s on his PhD thesis on the blood opsonin protein when he was studying medical immunology at the University of London's Institute of Child Health. And, Super notes, there was R. Alan Ezekowitz, MBChB, DPhil, whom he worked under as a post-doc at Boston Children's Hospital. "Any senior scientist you are working with closely has a strong influence on you," he says.
His ultimate mentor, however, was his father, Maurice Super, MD, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist interested in studying cystic fibrosis, who passed away a few years ago. Super recalls the many occasions he and his father engaged in discussions on how to treat patients while they were living in South-West Africa. "We did not have access to Harvard labs, so we had to make full use of our limited resources to come up with solutions," he recalls fondly.
Advantages for the Mentor
As a scientist/mentor, Super feels he gains more than he gives. "Mentoring is taking a student with a sharp mind and enormous potential but not necessarily enough knowledge, and motivating him/her to succeed." This experience can also be scientifically advantageous for the mentor. Super has established numerous collaborations after meeting other Harvard investigators at the SCTRP presentation closing session. "That's Harvard Catalyst at its best," he says.
For more information on becoming a mentor for VRIP or SCRTP, please contact Carol Martin, director of both programs.