Kimberly Rose Bennett, a PhD candidate in the Medical Engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP) program within the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST), has been selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to be one of the 50 Gilliam Fellows for 2023. Bennett is the first HST student to receive this prestigious fellowship.
The Gilliam Fellows are outstanding doctoral students, chosen to recognize exceptional research in their respective scientific fields and their dedication to the advancement of a “more inclusive scientific ecosystem.” Bennett and her thesis advisers Paula Hammond, Institute Professor and MIT vice provost for faculty, and Joelle Straehla, a pediatric oncologist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, will receive an annual award totaling $53,000 for up to three years.
As a Gilliam Fellow, Bennett will meet and network with other fellows and professors at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), which is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. This talented group of students, who are expected to go on to become the next generation of influential scientists, will offer one another an invaluable support network throughout their years of graduate school. In addition, the program invests not only in the students, but in their advisors as well, in recognition of the important role they play in helping their advisees realize their full potential. Gilliam advisors therefore participate in a year-long course that includes interactive webinars and in-person workshops designed to teach advisors how to listen and engage across cultures. Together, Bennett and her advisors will also receive funds to support diversity and inclusion efforts at MIT.
Bennett, a first-generation honors graduate in bioengineering from the University of California at Riverside, and a first-generation Mexican-American, says she is the first in her family to attend and complete college. She grew up in Hesperia, California, a small desert town that Bennett describes as a “low-resource, medically underserved community” with few STEM opportunities for college prep, including "lacking science camps, physics or computer science classes, or extensive AP/IB [advanced placement/international baccalaureate] curriculum.”
Bennett recalls that as a child, her exposure to science was primarily through a TV show called “MythBusters” — a science entertainment program. When her mother suffered a bout with breast cancer, Bennett recalls this health challenge as a catalyst to see science as a way to change and improve lives, so that “families don’t have to watch a loved one struggle”.
While at UC Riverside, Bennett began to see how the intersection of health sciences and engineering was where she wanted to build a career — ultimately leading her to HST, a program within MIT's Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, or IMES. She now works in the Hammond Lab (chemical engineering) and the Straehla Lab (pediatric neuro-oncology) and says that working in the two labs allows her to approach research “from two different lenses.”
Her current research focuses on tackling drug-delivery problems for treating pediatric brain tumors, including diffuse midline glioma, a disease which primarily affects children aged 2-10 years and which has a 100 percent fatality rate, with most patients succumbing to their tumors within a year of diagnosis. A major obstacle in treating these tumors is that there are currently no approved drug therapies available, such as chemotherapies — largely due to the inability of the drugs to get to the tumors in a high enough quantity to have an impact. Bennett is researching one innovative method to get these drugs to where they need to go: by using layer-by-layer nanoparticles. Layer-by-layer was pioneered in the Hammond Lab and involves the iterative adsorption of multiple layers of polymers, with each layer possessing a different task/function that, in total, creates a nanoparticle system that carries the drug cargo to a desired destination.
Bennett values this research area because she “really wanted to work on something translational and impactful … and the engineering and medicine combination (needed) to accomplish this.”
She adds that her goal is to become a professor in the medical engineering space, interfacing with clinicians in order to develop neuro-oncology technologies. A concurrent goal is to continue to do her part to enhance equity and inclusion in science and engineering, and to work on “improving the representation of Hispanic scientists in academia, primarily those who are also first-generation and low-income graduates, who have had extra barriers in pursuing higher education.”
“It’s so difficult to come from this background and to make it into a college, much less to and through graduate school, and then there is even less chance of joining academia afterwards,” Bennett says. “First-generation and low-income students face so many challenges that persist beyond our undergraduate degree — such as deeply rooted feelings of imposter syndrome with a feeling that you must ‘catch up’ to those around you.”
She cites other challenges first-generation and low-income students face, including lacking generational knowledge of how to navigate these spaces, having additional familial responsibilities or caretaking roles compared to peers, and experiencing financial insecurity, causing students to question whether they can continue their educations.
“Even now I sit in disbelief at how ‘lucky’ I’ve been to make it this far,” she says. “So, trying to make this path more accessible for others is an important goal of mine, and being able to mentor students through that journey is something I have been and want to continue doing.”
As part of this mentoring goal, she is co-founder and co-president of MIT’s First-Generation and/or Low-Income Graduate Student organization (GFLI@MIT) — which she co-founded with fellow HST students Diana Grass and Davy Deng, both MEMP PhD students. “Being able to support each other as a community is essential, as well as the ability to use our platform to advocate for resources to support these students throughout their entire graduate experience,” Bennett says. “I believe that winning the HHMI Gilliam Fellowship, along with two other national fellowships within the same year, really reaffirms that I and other first-generation students can be successful when given a supportive environment to thrive in.”
Bennett says she is “grateful to HST, and for every mentor along the way who has gotten me here” (she is particularly appreciative of her UC Riverside advisors, Victor Rodgers of the Bourns College of Engineering and Byron Ford of the School of Medicine), and she says she is excited about a future that brings together her devotion to translational research and mentorship.