PhD grad credits early lab experiences for his success in science

Raphael Reyes, PhD student in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, conducts COVID-19 research.


Raphael Reyes, PhD student in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, has always felt well-suited for a life in the lab.

After an early opportunity to work in a lab for a program at his high school, the California native was certain he was on the right career path for him.

“Since that experience, I’ve really held onto science closely throughout my life,” Reyes said. “I knew I wanted to pursue a career in science because of the great early experiences I had with mentorship, and I enjoyed being in the lab environment. It allowed me to be myself in a space just focusing on the science being done.”

Under the mentorship of Evelien Bunnik, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics, Reyes’ research focuses on natural immunity to severe malaria by studying the B cell and antibody responses in individuals who have recovered from infection, with the hope of “learning from nature to develop a malaria vaccine.”

Even though Reyes had already developed a deep interest in studying infectious disease when he began his PhD program, he credits the pandemic for strengthening his commitment to understanding infectious diseases.

Reyes in the lab with a coronavirus plush toy.

“It makes you realize how it’s so prevalent. It’s something that has happened in the past and is happening now, and it will continue to be part of our lives, so it’s very important to better understand how infectious disease works and how to prevent it in the future.”

When the pandemic hit, the Bunnik lab pivoted quickly to COVID research, with Reyes gaining a first author publication in PLOS One.

“It was unique experience coming into the lab when everything was shut down. At that time, we weren’t even sure if samples of individuals who were recovered were still infectious,” Reyes recalled. “It gave me valuable insight into that whole process and to see it all in action.”

In addition to this memorable experience and publication, Reyes has received several other notable awards, including a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award for Individual Predoctoral Fellows by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which supported his training for the past year.

Reyes looks forward to commencement, but admits he won’t have much down time afterward, as he will begin a post-doc fellowship in June at the Ragon Institute of Mass General, MIT, and Harvard in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Reyes acknowledged his mentors, colleagues and the supportive environment of the GSBS for his valuable experiences as a student, and especially thanked the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, or IMSD, a National Institute of Health student development program to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in biomedical research at research-intensive environments.

“It’s been an integral part in helping me advance throughout graduate school by providing a support system for minority students,” Reyes said, adding that, in the future, he’d like to pay it forward and be “heavily involved” with helping the next generation of underrepresented minorities in science.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to identify with potential mentors, to have someone to look up to that looks like you,” Reyes said. “The IMSD was a great support system because we had a community of underrepresented minorities that were able to help each other and connect in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without it. In the future I hope to give back to the community that raised me, because it takes a village to raise a scientist.”

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