Ben T. Larson selected for Porter Prize for Research Excellence (Postdoctoral Fellow)

Ben T. Larson a postdoctoral scholar from the University of California, San Francisco, has been selected for the 2022 Porter Prize for Research Excellence for a postdoctoral fellow.  He will present the talk “Integrating cellular structure, dynamics, and decision making to investigate principles of cellular behavior in a unicellular walker” on Wednesday, December 7, at Cell Bio 2022 in Washington, DC.

Ben Larson

The American Society for Cell Biology awards two Porter Prizes for Research Excellence, one for a graduate student and one for a postdoctoral fellow. Winners are chosen by their individual contributions to the advancement of science and on the novelty and creativity of their findings. ASCB looks for discoveries that provide new ideas and new avenues for exploration in cell biology in the spirit of one of ASCB’s founders Keith Porter.

Research Statement: I am interested in understanding how eukaryotic cells control complex behaviors in diverse environmental contexts and how these capacities evolve.

Statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI):  Science thrives when diverse perspectives are brought into conversation with one another. I strive to foster an inclusive environment that supports this diversity while expanding equitable access to science in my research, mentorship, teaching, and outreach activities.

Expanding equitable access to science begins well before the university level. As a graduate student and during my postdoc, I have pursued opportunities to engage with the general public through presentations and events at diverse venues including the Exploratorium, Chabot Space and Science Center, Science Resource Fair, Oakland schools, Maker Faire, Bay Area Science Festival, and the California Academy of Sciences. Many of these events focused on outreach tailored specifically to children and educators. I developed presentations and interactive activities for these events involving microscopy and protists from local environmental samples or cheek cells. I found this an effective way to make science and scientists real and relatable to those from diverse backgrounds.

While these activities help address barriers to underrepresented individuals from entering the scientific community, disparities in access to resources remains a significant structural barrier to many after they choose to pursue science or other technical fields. I have worked in the context of an extreme example of limited access to resources while volunteering as a data science mentor with Gaza Sky Geeks, the first tech hub and startup accelerator in Gaza. Although experiencing unreliable access to internet connectivity and electricity in addition to extremely limited economic opportunity and ability to travel, the Sky Geeks community shows exceptional commitment to leveraging free online resources and peer mentorship to develop skills. As a data science mentor, I delivered lectures on exploratory data analysis, best practices in quantitative analysis, and on how to effectively communicate results. I also serve as a point of contact for those pursuing data science related jobs in the US. Seeing members of the community obtain tech jobs in the Bay Area, Israel, and Europe was inspiring and drove home the importance of keeping knowledge, papers, and code open source or open access whenever possible. It also highlighted how an academic career can allow me to have a positive impact on people’s lives through teaching and mentorship.

Perhaps the most direct way I have been able to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in science is through teaching and mentorship. During my time as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, as a postdoc at UCSF, as a course facilitator in the MBL Physiology Course, and as a lead instructor for the UCSF and San Francisco State University affiliated National Science Foundation Center for Cellular Construction Summer Course, I have mentored students in guided research experiences. Along the way, I have shared my skills and knowledge in quantitative cell biology, protistology, and computation while fostering a supportive and inclusive environment. I make sure that all my trainees and students know that I will support and advocate for them regardless of their background or characteristics. I worked hard to navigate communities of different disciplinary backgrounds in my own work and collaborations and know that support from mentors and peers has been key to success. It has been particularly gratifying to play a role as a mentor, teacher, and reference, supporting SFSU students from disadvantaged backgrounds in making transitions toward careers involving computation and quantitative skills. As SFSU boasts one of the most diverse student bodies in the nation and is a top performer in social mobility, supporting this community stands as some of my most important work as a scientist and educator.   

In addition to these broader efforts, I am committed to supporting the ASCB community. Last year, I took the opportunity to lead a Special Interest Subgroup at Cell Bio Virtual 2021 with Guillermina Ramirez-San Juan and David Booth called “Cells in the WILD.” Our goal was to expand the purview of traditionally represented systems at the ASCB/EMBO annual meeting, with a focus on the importance of the environmental context of cell functions and on bringing together diverse perspectives from biophysics and computation to environmental microbiology and evolutionary cell biology. This session represented my commitment to integrating disciplines and to building community and equitable educational opportunity, all infused with my inordinate fondness for protists, and in service of ASCB’s mission.

About the Author:

This post was collaboratively written by several ASCB staff members.