11 Sep 2020
PRIMO 2020: A Summer of Virtual Community and Research
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by Shona Simkin

Mohammed Elzubeir, a junior at Princeton University, didn’t expect to be joining summer lunch meetings while he was actually eating dinner. But he, like so many in recent months, found himself at home—for Elzubeir that’s Johannesburg, South Africa—participating in a remote version of a summer program. This was the first virtual version of the Program for Research in Markets and Organizations (PRIMO), an HBS summer program that introduces undergraduates to academic business research. The 2020 program was distinctly different beyond just being online, as it was also the first time that it was open to any undergraduate student in good standing at an American college or university.

PRIMO was launched in 2011 as a representation of one of Dean Nitin Nohria’s Five I’s; an initiative for greater integration with the broader Harvard community. Initially focused on Harvard College students, the program expanded its mission to reflect a diverse group of learners and in 2017 accepted students from two other Massachusetts colleges; Wellesley and Mount Holyoke. This year, the group of 17 included students from Wellesley, Princeton, Carleton, and Georgia Tech.

In years past, the 10 weeks were devoted to exposing the small group of motivated students to the work and life of PhD students and academic researchers. As campus residents, they’re paired with a faculty member for a pre-defined research project; participate in in-class case discussions; grow their writing, research, and data-analysis skills; and participate in various community-building events and activities. This year, all of that had to be executed virtually. The program was reduced to eight weeks; four doctoral tutors spearheaded online activities such as game nights and yoga classes; and lunch seminars and meetings between participants and faculty members, tutors, and their dedicated Baker Research Services associate were via Zoom.

For Maryna MacDonald, coordinator of doctoral admissions and programs, the extra work required to execute the virtual program was well worth it for the enthusiasm and camaraderie she saw among the fellows. “This year’s PRIMO experience was so much more rewarding than I could have asked for,” she said. “As a team we created an engaging virtual experience that allowed everyone to take breaks and make friends, while also learning and working hard. During the lunchtime and case discussion sessions with faculty and doctoral students, the fellows never stopped showing their thirst for knowledge and curiosity.”

One of the primary goals of the program is to expose the fellows, who represent a wide variety of backgrounds including international students studying in the US, to the wide range of paths to, and within, a career in academic research. That exposure, explained Marais Young, associate director of the Doctoral Programs, was one that translated well to a virtual experience. “We ramped up the meetings and presentations with a range of doctoral students—some with years of research experience, others coming from careers in a wide array of industries,” said Young. “We worked to ensure that fellows were connecting individually with their faculty mentors, Baker Research Service contacts, and their assigned tutor, as well as some small groups. We found that sometimes they don't know the questions that they have until they hear someone else's question, so we've tried to capitalize on that.”

Those smaller group meetings did just that for Aspen Buck, a Harvard College junior majoring in history and science with a secondary in economics. The weekly lab meetings were some of her favorite moments in the program. “After each research presentation we spent 30 minutes brainstorming—everyone just threw out these crazy ideas—it was fun and so interesting to think about topics I had never before considered researching,” she said. Working on multiple projects and collaborating closely with doctoral students and faculty has made her more confident in pursuing an academic career, should she choose that path. “I was really intimidated by the concept of research before PRIMO—I now know that I can do it if I choose to, and that I have this community and support system. It makes me feel a lot better about the future.”

Similarly, Yailin Navarro, a Harvard College junior majoring in economics, was surprised by the breadth of research topics at HBS. “I didn't know how much I didn't know about business schools before I started PRIMO, and realize now that it's an entire trajectory and career path,” she said. “My professor helped me see what research is like, and introduced me to assessing the literature and working with data. Those concepts were abstract to me, but now that I’ve had this glimpse I'm going to continue to investigate and consider a future in business school.” Navarro enjoyed the experience so much that she is continuing her research project into the coming academic year—a newfound advantage of the virtual experience.

For Elzubeir, who is pursuing an economics major and weighing a career in academia or finance, PRIMO was an opportunity to learn more about emerging markets and test out new skills from a recent data science class. Those dinnertime lunch meetings, in which faculty members discussed their background and work, were a high point. “The lunch sessions gave us a chance to see the different types of research that can be conducted at a business school, some of which I didn't know about and would not have learned about if we hadn't had those talks. It was fascinating to hear professors talk very frankly and honestly about their experiences in academia and various fields, and to learn about how they conduct research.”

HBS faculty members are equally enthusiastic about their participation and experience with fellows. Associate Professor Scott Kominers, who was in the 2006 inaugural cohort of PRIMO’s sister program, the Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE), has been a part of PRIMO since its inception—first as a tutor right after finishing his HBS doctoral degree, then as a lecturer in the program, and as a faculty mentor since joining HBS faculty in 2016. He sees in PRIMO fellows the same level of excellence and excitement that he experienced himself in PRISE. “You're surrounded by a bunch of other students with similar drive but very different specific interests; I became excited about many other fields because I was surrounded by people who were immersing themselves in them,” said Kominers. “PRIMO has this extraordinary ability to help students who want to be on the research path to dive in and move forward quickly. And the students I've worked with have been uniformly spectacular. They are infinitely curious, super high energy, and willing to go far outside of their intellectual comfort zones, which makes for a great teaching and advising experience.”

For Tracy LeBlanc, a senior at Carleton College, the virtual experience was rewarding, exciting, and inspiring. With an interest in cross-cultural behavioral science and emerging technologies, LeBlanc felt that PRIMO offered an appealing mix of academic rigor and industry impact. “PRIMO gave my days structure, with different calls scheduled with the group, professors, or the greater research village,” she said. “I love meeting new people and was a little nervous that it might be more difficult virtually, but there were great opportunities to get to know people across Harvard and to hear about the stories and work of students and professors. Coming from a different school, that was a big deal.” She has a notebook filled with scrawled notes about interesting research topics, which will inform her upcoming senior thesis. “I feel like I have a head start thinking about what I want to do in the future, and where I should put a lot of energy this year,” said LeBlanc. “I'm excited to go from priming myself with a summer of research into doing my own. I'm feeling inspired!”

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