Paying it Forward

Since arriving at MIT in fall 2019, senior Sherry Nyeo has conducted groundbreaking work in multiple labs on campus, acted as a mentor to countless other students, and made a lasting mark on the Institute community. But despite her well-earned bragging rights, Nyeo isn’t one to boast. Instead, she takes every opportunity to express just how grateful she is to the professors, alumni, and fellow students who have helped and inspired her during her time at MIT. “I like helping people if I can,” says Nyeo, who is majoring in computer science and molecular biology, “because I got helped so much.”

Nyeo’s passion for science began when she applied for the Selective Science Program at Tainan First Senior High School, widely considered one of the most prestigious high schools in Taiwan. “Preparing for that process made me realize that biology was pretty cool,” she recalls.

When Nyeo was 16, her family moved from Taiwan to Colorado, where she continued to cultivate her interest in STEM. Although she excelled at biology, she initially struggled to master computer science. “[Programming] was really hard for me,” she says. “It was a completely different way of thinking.” When she arrived at MIT, she decided to pursue a degree in computer science precisely because she knew she would find it challenging and because she appreciates how vital data analysis is to the field of biology. After all, she says, when you’re working at the scale of cells and molecules, “you need a lot of data to describe what’s going on.”

In the winter of her first year at MIT, Nyeo began doing hands-on research in laboratories on campus through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). Her work in the lab of Whitehead Fellow Silvi Rouskin sparked an enduring interest in RNA, which she has come to regard as her “favorite biomolecule.”

Nyeo’s work in the Rouskin lab focused on alternative RNA structures and the roles they play in human and viral biology. While DNA mostly exists as a double helix, RNA can fold itself into a huge variety of structures in order to fulfill different functions. During her time as a student researcher, Nyeo has demonstrated a similar ability to adapt to different circumstances. When MIT campus members evacuated due to the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, and her UROP became entirely remote, she treated her time away from the lab as an opportunity to explore the computational side of research. Her work was subsequently included in a Nature Communications paper on the SARS-CoV-2 genome, on which she is listed as a co-author.

Since returning to campus, Nyeo has often worked in multiple labs simultaneously, conducting innovative research while also juggling classes, internships, and several demanding extracurriculars. Through it all, she has continued to pursue her fascination with RNA, a tiny, somewhat unassuming molecule that nonetheless has a massive impact on practically every aspect of our biology. Nyeo, who has shown herself to be equally multifaceted, seems especially well-suited to the study of this remarkable biomolecule.

Although Nyeo’s work in the life sciences keeps her busy, she finds time to nurture a diverse set of other passions. She took a class on experimental ethics, is working on an original screenplay, and has even picked up a minor in German. Since her sophomore year, she has also been a part of the New Engineering Education Transformation (NEET) program, which provides students with multidisciplinary interests the opportunity to collaborate across departments. Through NEET, currently directed by professor of biological engineering Mark Bathe, Nyeo has been able to pursue her interest in bioengineering research and connect to a vast community of students and professors. Most recently, she has been working within the Bathe BioNano Lab to use DNA to engineer new materials at the nanometer scale.

Nyeo hopes to put her skills to use by pursuing a career in biotechnology. She is currently minoring in management and dreams of one day starting her own company. But she doesn’t want to leave academia behind just yet and has begun working on applications for PhD programs in biology. “I originally came in thinking that I would just go straight into the biotech industry,” Nyeo explains. “And then I realized that I don’t dislike research and that I actually enjoy it.”

As part of her current work in the lab of professor of biology David Bartel, Nyeo investigates how viral infection affects RNA metabolism, and she often finds herself using her computational skills to help postdocs with their data analysis. In fact, one of the things Nyeo has most enjoyed about working as a student researcher is the opportunity to join a network of people who provide one another with support and guidance.

Nyeo’s willingness to help others is perhaps the aspect of her personality that best suits her to the study of RNA. Over the past few decades, researchers have discovered an increasingly large number of therapeutic uses for RNA, including cancer immunotherapy and vaccine development. In the summer of 2022, Nyeo worked as an intern at Eli Lilly and Company, where she helped identify potential targets for RNA therapeutics. She may continue to explore this area of research when she eventually enters the biotech industry. In the meantime, however, she’s finding ways to help people closer to home.

Since her first year, Nyeo has been a part of the MIT Biotech Group. When she first joined, the group had a fairly small undergraduate presence, and most events were geared toward graduate students and postdocs. Nyeo immediately dedicated herself to making the group more welcoming for undergraduates. As the director of the Undergraduate Initiative and later the undergraduate student president, she was a leading architect of a new seminar series in which MIT alumni came to campus to teach undergraduates about biotechnology. “There are a lot of technical terms associated with [biotech],” Nyeo explains. “If you just come in as an undergrad, not knowing what’s happening, that can be a bit daunting.”

Between her research in the Bartel lab and her work with NEET and the MIT Biotech Group, Nyeo doesn’t have a lot of free time, but she dedicates most of it to making MIT a friendlier environment for new students. She promotes research opportunities as a UROP panelist and has worked as an associate advisor since her junior year. She helps first-year students choose and register for classes, works with faculty advisors, and provides moral support to students who are feeling overwhelmed with options. “When I came [to MIT], I also didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Nyeo explains. “Upperclassmen helped me a lot with that process, and I want to pay it forward.”

This story was originally written by Phie Jacobs and published in MIT News on January 31, 2023. Photo courtesy of Steph Stevens. 

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