Harvard Undergraduate Student Employee of the Year

Esther Elonga

Job Title: Undergraduate Researcher

Organization: The Broad Institute: The Center for Development of Therapeutics

Nominator: Brian Chamberlain, PhD


Esther is responsible for independently researching and curating a database related to the Broad Institute’s Drug Repurposing Hub. The role requires collaboration with chemists, biologists, and data scientists, and communication with a variety of stakeholders including director level leadership to develop an open source research tool.

Esther ElongaCommunication is a critical part of this role. The researcher needs to understand the needs of the Repurposing Hub end user, interface with computer scientists working with the database ‘back-end’ and determine what resources are available to curate the database. Therefore the researcher must be able to understand and discuss technical information with a group that has a range of backgrounds and experience.

I was impressed by Esther’s skills as an active listener and her ability to comfortably discuss what wasn’t working well and ask clarifying questions when she did not have background knowledge in a particular area. Esther gave two seminar style presentations to the entire project team. The consensus from these presentations was that Esther’s work and presentation skills were outstanding.

A goal of the research is to create a historical record of the search methodology and resources that were developed over the course of the summer so that future researchers will not have to ‘reinvent the wheel’. Esther’s written account was excellent and will serve as a guide to future students who assume the role.

Esther showed incredible resourcefulness in profiling and various resources can be found online. As this role requires data curation, Esther demonstrated her ability to thoughtfully collaborate with the computational scientist to develop tools to manipulate and curate the data. Esther also showed strategic thinking when deciding whether to develop an automated solution and when to ‘power through’ and curate or assemble the data manually.

An interesting challenge of the research arose when Esther was trying to assemble a list of drugs into a subset that were active in the central nervous system. When digging into the problem Esther discovered that there were several ways in which this subset could be assembled and there was no strict definition for what constitutes a central nervous system active compound. Esther independently thought about the goal for assembling the subset and decided to curate two subsets based on different criteria. In this case, Esther encountered a challenge in her work, thought about the goals of the project and acted on a solution independently.

Esther was well organized and thoughtful in her organization of project materials and deliverables. Esther kept her own schedule and met her deadlines with high quality work. Esther was proactive about communicating challenges and developments in the work that required adjusting timelines.

Esther is a member of an underrepresented group in STEM, qualified for federal work study support to conduct this work, and has a strong religious identity. Esther is very skilled at bringing all of these aspects (her ‘full self’) to work and her confidence and openness about her identity encourages others from all backgrounds to do the same. This contributes to a culture of inclusion. Furthermore, Esther goes out of her way to reach out to others whose voices are sometimes lost. For example, our group has international students who come to the lab for one-year internships. Their English skills are being developed throughout their time in the lab and I noticed that Esther was deliberate in reaching out to them early on and making them feel comfortable as they adjusted to their new surroundings. Esther is the type of person who makes sure that the entire team is heard.

Esther has ambitious goals to be the PI of a lab conducting translational biology research. Esther has a unique story in which she has sought out different research opportunities spanning the drug discovery sub-disciplines throughout her undergraduate career. Her early work was conducted in a biology lab and then she conducted organic chemistry research. When the pandemic shut down on-site research opportunities for the summer of 2020, Esther worked with me to identify this project as a complement to her skill set. By helping to curate the Repurposing Hub, she gained experience in medicinal chemistry, drug repurposing screening and the development of open-source tools for drug discovery. Additionally, Esther is proactive about seeking career advice from a variety of mentors and looks for ways to improve how she communicates research (a key skill set needed for her to accomplish her goals). Part of the research related to her summer work was presented at the Broad Institute’s annual retreat in which Esther was the first undergraduate to ever give an oral presentation.

[The above content was taken from the SEOTY nomination form submitted by Esther's mentor, Brian Chamberlain, PhD.]

A Q&A with Esther

Q1:What made you apply to your current job while being a student?

Esther: I applied because it was an opportunity for me to learn more about the Broad Institute’s Repurposing Hub (BIRH). I had been conducting research since my freshmen year on an interesting compound (BRD4780) that was discovered by screening the BIRH library. I was curious about how the resource was maintained, and the compounds in the library. Since I could not continue doing wet-lab research due to COVID-19, I needed a remote position. Therefore, I took on this remote project in the Center for the Development of Therapeutics (CDoT) at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT.

Q2:Where did you find your job?

Esther: I heard about the position in connection to the thesis research I was doing.

Q3: How have you been able to balance your schoolwork and work responsibilities? What are your personal keys to success and what challenges or hurdles have you encountered?

Esther: I was also studying for the Medical College Admissions Test. What I found helpful was tracking the time I spent studying or working using the timetrack app. By tracking my time, I could focus on each activity I was doing at the time I had allotted to it. I also set weekly time duration goals for work and study. Whenever I reached these goals, I would reward myself with spending more time with family and friends.

My personal keys to success are:

  • Being honest. This was really helpful in my job. Since it was completely remote and during the pandemic where so much was going on both at home and in the country, I found being honest with my supervisor when I didn’t make the expected hours for the week or when I was struggling reaching a goal really helpful.
  • Hard work. Working hard at the goals I had set to reach them was helpful as well. Reaching my goals, for me, meant more time doing other things that helped me stay healthy such as running, or spending time with family and friends.
  • Communication: Since I was doing research, I did not know how the work would unfold. Therefore, strong communication was key to helping me adapt as the project unfolded.

Q4:What does your typical day look like at work? What do you love the most about your position?


Esther: Since my job was remote, most of it would be at home. I usually worked 20 hours per week, so I would divide this by working either 5 hours each day for 4 days or 4 hours each day for 5 days a week. I would usually log onto my computer to start working around 10 am. I would work for 2 hours. After this, I would study or do something else according to the plan I made for that day. I would then work again at 7pm for another two hours. I would do this every week. I love learning.

Most of the work involved organizing data in excel which required some coding. I had never taken a computer science course before this job. Therefore, I enjoyed learneing some simple coding commands in excel, and got an interest in taking computer science to learn more coding because I could see its application to what I was doing. I also liked learning about different medications and the drug approval process by different drug regulatory agencies I was looking at.


Q5: How does it relate to what you are learning at Harvard?


Esther: The project did not relate as much to what I was learning at Harvard but to what I wanted to do. I want to do my PhD in Chemical biology and develop small-molecule probes or treatments for diseases. It was a great experience to be exposed to a tool, repurposing, that most scientists usually first look into for small molecule probes or treatments.


Q6: What is the most rewarding part of your job? What lessons have you learned that you’ll take with you after graduation?


Esther: The most rewarding part of the job was knowing that the tool I was developing in a team with other researchers was an open source that would be used by many scientists who are repurposing small molecules at different stages of the drug discovery process to study or treat diseases that don’t have cures yet. The entire project focused on organizing the repurposing library so it could be easily used by other scientists. Therefore, I’ll take this lesson of organizing my work well such that someone else can easily replicate or understand it after graduation.