First he had to convince Max Essex.
Elliot Eton had just graduated from high school when he ended up in Essex’s office. After receiving his acceptance letter to Harvard, Elliot assumed he’d begin college in the fall with the other freshmen. Then he read a letter from the Dean of Admissions, encouraging students to consider a gap year. The idea of pursuing his own interests, “unencumbered by academics,” appealed to Elliot.
His parents, both doctors, were initially skeptical, but soon agreed. Elliot learned about Essex’s research when he read an article about an AIDS prevention trial in Botswana. He emailed Essex, who responded almost immediately with an invitation to talk.
What impressed Essex was that Elliot, though still a teenager, already had significant research experience. The summer he was 15, Elliot attended the Advanced Biotechnology Institute at The Roxbury Latin School in Boston. At 16, he attended Harvard Summer School, taking courses in neuroscience and writing. (He got As in both.) At 17, he worked in an MIT lab that studies learning and memory.
“He was quite mature in his thinking and in his willingness to deviate from standard paths and not just take the year off to travel around Europe,” said Essex, who invited Elliot to work at the Harvard AIDS Initiative.
Elliot arrived at the Harvard T.H. Chan School in the fall of 2014. He quickly completed lab safety courses, but because he was neither a student nor an employee, state labor laws did not permit him to work in the Boston lab. He took the setback well. With Essex’s encouragement, Elliot made plans to travel to Botswana in January to conduct research at the Botswana Harvard Partnership, where regulations would allow him to work. In the meantime, he learned computational methods for genomic analysis, reviewed the scientific literature about immune system-driven HIV adaptation, and attended lectures—sometimes several a day—at both the School of Public Health and the Medical School.
“He is adept at handling a lot of situations and participating in scientific conversations with much more experienced students,” said Essex.
Elliot left for Botswana in late January to spend several months working at the Botswana–Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory on the grounds of Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone. Back in Boston this summer, Elliot presented his research at an Essex Lab meeting. He showed his data and discussed how HIV responds and adapts to various human immune system pressures.
The fall semester starts soon. Elliot has his roommate assignment. Soon he’ll be hiking in the White Mountains on a weeklong orientation trip with other Harvard freshmen. He’s working on narrowing down his course selection. “This year I developed skills in molecular biology, but I realized, even in my own project, that research requires integrating knowledge from different disciplines. I’d like to build a stronger foundation in physics, chemistry, engineering, statistics, programming, and ethics.”
Eventually Elliot would like to become a clinician/scientist and hopes his work will help influence public policy. “I’m interested in medicine and understanding the path from the bench to the bedside to the community and back,” he said. “In research, being able to figure out why something isn’t the way you thought it would be is a good skill to have.” Keep an eye on him. Elliot Eton is likely to make important contributions to biomedical research.
Read Elliot Eton’s account of his time at the Botswana Harvard Partnership on the HAI blog:
Touch Down in Botswana: My Gap Year in an HIV/AIDS Lab