Mentoring Future Scientists – A Ragon Postdoc’s Valuable Experience with the Massachusetts Science & Engineering Fair

Date: March 26, 2024 By: Nick Kolev

Ragon postdoctoral fellow Matheus Oliveira De Souza volunteers his time to help the next generation of researchers

Whether it is a DIY circuit board, a solar-powered robot, or a study of bacterial growth on household surfaces — experiments and science fairs are often the first step taken by budding researchers into the world of science.

Fostering such curiosity and passion is a crucial goal of the Massachusetts Science & Engineering Fair. A goal that Matheus Oliveira De Souza, PhD, a postdoc in the lab of Ragon Institute faculty member Brandon DeKosky, was excited to be a part of.

“I came across an announcement seeking scientists to volunteer for the MSEF BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) program. The concept of inspiring students to envision themselves in STEM fields and establishing a support network resonated with me deeply,” Oliveira De Souza said. 

Oliveira De Souza, originally from Brazil, works in the DeKosky Lab studying effective antibody immunity to design and develop better intervention strategies against infectious diseases. Outside of the lab, he is also involved with mentoring programs, the Ragon culture committee, and helps lead the Ragon choir.

“It was through mentorship and representation that I became engaged in the sciences,” he said, “so I chose to help.”

The Massachusetts Science & Engineering Fair (MSEF) is a Cambridge-based nonprofit that organizes, hosts, and supports student science fairs across the state.

Each year thousands of students in Massachusetts experience the professional practices of working scientists and engineers through the development of independent research projects. MSEF supports the students and their teachers with a portfolio of tools (webinars, handbooks, volunteers, etc.) that facilitate and enhance their research. 

This is done through year-long STEM programming that culminates in the capstone state Science Fair, which is held in April for high school students and May for middle school students and features the top-scoring projects from each regional fair.

As a mentor for BIPOC students in particular, Oliveira De Souza helps guide their research projects and acts as a resource for underrepresented students.

“I support students in achieving success in their research projects by conducting biweekly meetings and providing periodic email check-ins,” he said. “I also offer feedback on their project ideas, supervise their experimental design, share relevant resources, and assist them in completing their reports.”

Oliveira De Souza said that working with these students is an enriching experience for him, particularly seeing them become more independent over time.

“Witnessing their growth as young scientists, observing their creativity in experiment planning, and learning about their diverse backgrounds are all remarkable aspects of this experience,” he said. “Though they might initially require more assistance, they progressively become more self-sufficient.”

In 2022, Oliveira De Souza mentored Britney, a high school junior from Lowell, who chose to focus on designing a solar-powered car for her project. He said she was an exceptional student with a passion for renewable energy that made him proud.

“Her project earned her a medal at the district fair, and she also did really well at the state fair,” he noted. “I believe that this work ignited an interest in science and engineering that may continue to grow in the future.”

Accompanying students through their journey from finding an idea to molding it  into a fully realized project is something Oliveira de Souza  deeply enjoyed. Though projects are completely independent, mentors like Oliveira De Souza are there to act as a resource for support when students need guidance.

“My favorite part as a mentor was witnessing the students’ enthusiasm and excitement grow throughout the project’s development,” he said. “It was truly gratifying to see how proud they were at the end when they realized what they had accomplished.”

Though no longer a mentor, Oliveira De Souza still participates as a judge for regional and state fairs. Students said this was one of the most valuable parts of the fair for them.

“One of the points which I enjoyed immensely about participating in the Science Fair is the insightful discussion that I had with the judges,” a student said. “They may be hearing about the project for the first time, but their suggestions and opinions shed new light on areas I had not factored in, encouraging me to keep working further.”

For his part, Oliveira de Souza said both aspects of volunteering are an important way to help students.

“It is a great way to motivate students who are just starting in the science field and I plan to keep helping with the BIPOC coaching projects in the future because I understand that representation is so powerful,” he said.

Another student echoed this, saying how important it was for them as someone underrepresented in the sciences.

“The most valuable aspect of the Science Fair was participating in something that people of my background don’t get to experience,” they said.

“I highly recommend mentoring to other researchers,” Oliveira De Souza said. “In addition to gaining experience in communicating science across various levels and witnessing the creativity of mentees from diverse ages and backgrounds, effective mentors can profoundly impact the future of the next generation of scientists.”

More News

Press Releases

Ragon Study Finds Key Mechanism of Immune Evasion by SARS-CoV-2

Their findings, to be published in Cell next month, reveal how the virus manipulates immune system processes to avoid destruction by natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that is crucial for fighting viral infections.

Press Releases

Ragon faculty sheds light on intricate functions of Resident Tissue Macrophages (RTM’s) which extend beyond immune defense

The lab of the Ragon Institute faculty member Hernandez Moura Silva, PhD, recently published a review in Science Immunology regarding resident tissue macrophages (RTMs), shedding light on their multifaceted roles in organ health. 

‘Evolution of an Epidemic’ Returns — Taking Students Across South Africa to Learn the Real-World Impact of HIV and COVID-19

After three years off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ragon-MIT course HST.434 returned this January to provide 24 students a once in a lifetime learning experience