From Hofstra to Harvard
 

In the summer of 2016, Hofstra biology/biochemistry major Paul Franco ’17 joined pre-med student Hannah Gomes at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, which is among the world’s leading centers for stem cell science.

Read More

It was the spring of her sophomore year, and pre-med student Hannah Gomes was looking to score a summer research fellowship somewhere – anywhere.

But the rejections were piling up. Out of nearly 100 applications, she got just one offer.

“Failure is a big part of science,” Gomes said. “Being able to fail and come back and say ‘Oh no, we’ve got to come up with a better idea and overcome that’ – that’s what research is about.”

The one offer? From the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Gomes spent two summers as an undergraduate research assistant at Harvard, diving into projects investigating immune tolerance, and ways to engineer cells that create resistance to the HIV virus, or prevent rejection of transplanted organs.

In the summer of 2016, Hofstra biology/biochemistry major Paul Franco ’17 joined Gomes at the institute, which is among the world’s leading centers for stem cell science. He worked on research focusing on diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

“People ask us all the time – ‘how are you both here? Because it’s very competitive to get into these labs and a lot of Harvard kids don’t get in’ ,” Franco said one afternoon at the institute lab. “I try not to take it for granted – it’s incredible to be here, to interact with everybody, and make friends with people who are at the top of their field.”

Different Paths, Same Destination

Franco grew up not far from Hofstra, in Seaford, N.Y. Gomes was recruited from her native Brazil on a volleyball scholarship. But they share a passion and sense of purpose about scientific research shaped by the early practical experience they got at Hofstra.

“I was a nervous freshman and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or if I was good at any of it,” Franco said. “Working with my biology professors, it was like the first spark in the fire that got me excited about research. It really exposed me to what a life in research is all about.”

And that experience gave Franco and Gomes the skills and mental toughness necessary to thrive at a place like the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said Neil Donahue, Hofstra’s vice provost for undergraduate research.

“Our students work in the lab directly with professors, on their own research related to the professor’s research,” Donahue said, “so they come out with a great deal of confidence about what they’re doing, what they know how to do and how to solve problems in the lab. And that matters. A lot.”

“What I like about Hannah and Paul,” he said, “is that they’re not afraid of failing … and they are totally grounded despite their brilliance and willingness to spend seemingly endless hours in the lab.”

“When you start doing experiments and you start getting results, you just can’t stop … and you just keep going and you don’t see time passing.”

–Hannah Gomes

Life in the Lab

Franco and Gomes live to do research, but it’s not their whole life.

“When you start doing experiments and you start getting results, you just can’t stop … and you just keep going and you don’t see time passing,” Gomes said, giddy as she described an average day at the institute lab.

Said Franco: “A lot of times Hannah and I are in the lab 14 hours a day. In part because it’s a transformative experience for us, and allows us to develop as scientists and people. But also because this work is extremely important to the scientific community and everyone as a whole.”

They embraced life outside the lab with equal enthusiasm.

They explored Cambridge and Boston, especially by bike, kayaked the Charles River, relaxed on the lawns of Harvard Yard, and browsed the aisles of the Harvard Coop bookstore.

Gomes, who had given up volleyball at Hofstra to concentrate on her studies, even had a chance to play competitively again – this time as part of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute’s summer league.

“You can dedicate your life to research and all your time to being in the lab and doing research,” Franco said, “but that doesn’t mean you stop living your life.”

“You can dedicate your life to research and all your time to being in the lab and doing research, but that doesn’t mean you stop living your life.”

-Paul Franco

Making a Difference

Growing up in Belo Horizonte, a city north of Rio de Janiero, Gomes always aspired to a medical career that combines research and treating real people.

“I would talk about my dreams with my dad and say ‘I want to do research, I want to be a scientist, but at the same time I want to help patients and be a doctor’,” she said. “My dream was to do great research and apply what I learned and my findings and discoveries in patients.”

And that process never ends.

There’s always a next step,” Franco said. “Any good experiment leaves you with more questions than answers. You never leave feeling satisfied.”

Update

In January 2017, Paul and Hannah got engaged to be married.

Paul and Hannah