Hands-on experience is everything to Alex Boucher Jr. Experiences in labs helped him explore his interests and gain skills that opened doors for new opportunities. Now, Alex is gearing up to graduate from college and pursue a PhD in biomedical sciences. As a Forsyth Student Scholars Alumnus, we thought he would have a great perspective on the impact research experience can have on high school students. His story certainly lived up to our expectations.
Q&A with Alex Boucher Jr.
What is your hometown/neighborhood and which high school did you attend?
I grew up in Brockton Mass., a city on the East Coast, and I went to Brockton High School. I graduated in 2019. I was participating in the Mass. Life Sciences Center apprenticeship when I learned about and applied to Forsyth.
Can you tell us about your experience at the Forsyth Summer Internship?
I worked in the He/Shi lab with Fan Xue and Luija Chen on a project analyzing the different characteristics of the oral microbiomes of different patients, of different ages. For my study I analyzed saliva samples from people with and without cavities. We grew those bacteria that we collected from the saliva samples and then did sequencing, analyzing the bacteria from the different samples. I could see clear differences between the communities of bacteria in samples from people with and without cavities. One sample from someone with no cavities was kind of a mix. We can’t really frame results over a small sample size, but we could conclude that each person’s oral microbiome was unique.
What kind of impact did the FSS program have on your career path?
The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center’s Apprenticeship Program was the first genuine lab experience that we had outside of regular high school labs. Then the foundation that I got at Forsyth was super valuable for me. Forsyth taught me how to work in a lab.
My current mentor is in the engineering school at WPI. Usually, the bio students he gets haven’t been super involved in learning more than high school biology. He was so surprised I could already use the pipette and knew how to do PCR and use all this lab equipment. I learned all that at Forsyth. He said, “Oh, you have good hands already. I don’t need to spend time teaching you that.” So we were able to go right into experiments.
I also learned how to do certain lab procedures at Forsyth. Not a lot of people are great at keeping a lab notebook. But I have gotten compliments on my lab notebooks, and I have been doing it the same way since I did it at Forsyth. So that’s awesome.
My experience at Forsyth is also what got me interested in working in a lab full time. Since then, I’ve worked in a peptide synthesis lab, in Gardner. That was my first job after Forsyth. It was cool because it gave me experience with manufacturing, and I learned that I don’t really like the whole manufacturing side of things. I like research and I like being able to iterate and repeat and then do different things to find something out rather than just repeating the same process over and over again every day. I want to go into either cancer biology, genetics or molecular and development, something like that. So that’s kind of the whole research path for me.
What are you doing in your career now?
I’m a senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) this year. I’m going to be graduating in May. For my senior project, I have been working with protein-protein interactions between the epidermal growth factor receptor and different inhibitor protein, analyzing those interactions. It’s a mix of molecular biology, structural analysis of proteins and then just biochemistry in general
I recently got accepted to the Morningside Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in Worcester at UMass Chan, the medical school. That’s where I’m planning on going for my PhD. It’s an umbrella program and I’m not sure what I will end up specializing in yet.
Do you have any advice for high school students considering STEM education tracks?
I always tell people if I go back to my high school and I hear that someone is interested in biology or something similar, to try to get a research opportunity early. The only thing that matters is experience. It’s what you know, and what you know how to do. If you can demonstrate that you know how to do a certain thing, a company will hire you.
Like I said, I was the only undergrad at the protein lab. They didn’t realize that I didn’t graduate college until I was in my interview. It is so important to be able to show that you know what you’re doing whether it’s to follow a protocol or to do the different things that your job requires. I think that if you have that experience, you’ve got a shot, no matter what your background is.