Corey Harwell, Ph.D.
Department of Neurobiology
Harvard Medical School
Mentorship Makes a Difference
As I reflect on my scientific career to date, one theme that stands out has been the importance of mentorship. I’ve had several mentors that helped me get where I am today. They include my first mentor, Dr. Fu-Ming Chen, who sparked my interest in research; Dr. Prem Kahlon, who encouraged me to apply for the Tennessee State University (TSU) Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program; and my PhD mentor, Dr. Elly Nedivi, who shepherded me through the personal and professional growth I needed to succeed as an independent scientist.
I had originally planned to go to medical school, and started doing research as a way to set myself up as a competitive applicant. However, during the summer of my sophomore year, I participated in a UCSF summer research program working in the laboratory of neuroscientist Dr. Cori Bargmann. My summer experience in the Bargmann lab is what set me on the path to graduate school in neuroscience. It was here I began to appreciate the wide range of really basic questions of how the nervous system develops and functions that we just don’t know the answers to. I realized how much I liked the culture and ethos of scientific pursuits, and the idea of making discoveries with the potential to broadly impact human health, even in a very small way, was very appealing.
The next summer, I had the opportunity to work in the laboratory of Dr. Elly Nedivi at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The intellectual environment at MIT and the breadth and diversity of neuroscience-related research was eye-opening. Dr. Nedivi was just starting her lab, which was small and very attentive to the training needs of the students. After that experience, I applied and was accepted into the neuroscience graduate program at MIT in the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and did my thesis with Dr. Nedivi. The lab was an ideal environment to transition from my undergraduate major of chemistry to cellular and molecular neurobiology. As a new PI, she was still very close to the experiments and it was a great place to learn how to be a scientist, and sparked my desire to become an independent investigator.
For my postdoc, I joined the laboratory of Dr. Arnold Kriegstein at UCSF. I had gotten great training as student and wanted to see if I could function as an independent scientist. So, I chose a larger lab that would provide the freedom to set my own course while also providing me training in early neural development, which is where my interests had turned. This experience cemented my desire to be at an institution where my primary focus was running a research lab, focusing on training graduate students as opposed to teaching in the classroom. I ultimately accepted a tenure-track position in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, which has been a great environment where I am, surrounded by researchers who are collegial, engaging, and passionate about science.
In my second year on the tenure track, I applied for the NINDS Faculty Career Development Award (K01). Scientifically, the K01 was based on an offshoot of my postdoc work on the role of sonic hedgehog in the establishment of cortical circuitry. One of the most lasting and valuable aspects of the K01 was the establishment of formal mentoring relationships as a new independent investigator. I assembled a team that I felt could give input on different aspects of my career development. My primary mentor, Dr. Rosalind Segal, had similar research interests in developmental neurobiology and a reputation as a great mentor. Dr. Wade Regehr would provide world-renowned expertise in electrophysiology, which I planned to set up in my own lab. My third mentor, Dr. Mike Greenberg, also overlapped scientifically and is chair of my department—who better to advise me on about career development than the person who hired me and had a large hand in setting up my career?
The K01 was my first NIH grant application, and my mentors have provided tremendous support for my grant submissions, for both the K01 and subsequent research grants. Dr. Segal, in particular, helped with guiding me through the process of assembling the application and critiquing the science; she has more than met her commitment as outlined in the K01 application. The K01 also helped me articulate specific steps that I would take to build the skills I needed to for career advancement, such as grant writing expertise and building an integrated team to conduct the research. This also helped make the interactions with my mentors focused and productive.
In addition to these benefits, the K01 really helped me get the research project off the ground. It provided a venue to formalize the research plan from the outset, but, because of the funding it provided, I wasn’t afraid to go where the science was taking me. I was able to gather the data necessary for a successful R01 application, awarded by NINDS in 2017. I plan to submit the core K01 project for a second R01 in the coming months.
Choosing your mentors wisely to addresses the multiple aspects of your career development, is very important. We all get into this career path because we’re passionate about science, so that part tends to come relatively easy. Forging relationships with people who can help you develop all the other skills necessary to be an independent investigator—that is critical for success.
- As told to Lauren Ullrich
A fundamental question in developmental neurobiology is how the developmental histories of neural cell types influence their mature function. My lab takes a multidisciplinary approach utilizing molecular genetics, molecular biology, and modern circuit mapping techniques to analyze the function of temporally defined subgroups of neurons in the developing brain. We follow specific subgroups of neural progenitors through developmental time to understand the genetic and epigenetic programs that determine their ultimate fate. Together these diverse approaches provide a comprehensive picture of the molecular specification of distinct neuronal cell types and their functional relevance within circuits of the brain.
Molecular specification of distinct neuronal cell types and their functional relevance within circuits of the brain.