Alumnae/i Feature

Finding Community at Simmons as a Transfer Commuter Student

Kiani Jacobs

“All of my experiences contributed to where I am now. Even my [Simmons] labs for exercise physiology.”

While at Simmons, Exercise Science major and Health Care Management minor Kiani Jacobs ’23 received the 2023 Senior Scholar Award and interned at the Harvard Medical Ginty Lab on Neurological Research. Starting a PhD in Exercise Science this fall, she reflects on the value of time spent in the lab, planning events with student groups, and finding her place — as a transfer student and a commuter — at Simmons.

Kiani Jacobs ’23 first learned about physical therapy as a profession while a high school athlete in Antigua, the Caribbean island where she was raised.

“I knew I wanted to be in healthcare, but I didn’t want to be a [medical] doctor,” says Jacobs. “Physical therapy sounded cool, using methods outside of pharmacology to help heal people.”

That summer, Jacobs volunteered at Mount St. John's Medical Centre (newly renamed the Sir Lester Bird Medical Centre), working in the rehabilitation clinic alongside physical therapists. “I learned a lot, and got to work with a wide range of people — kids, athletes, and even accident victims. I [realized] this is what I want to do.”

The Road to Simmons

Jacobs started her education at Bunker Hill Community College before applying to complete her studies at Simmons. “I knew I wanted to do my undergraduate degree in Massachusetts,” she says, “and that I would be a commuter student. I had to consider what my commute would be like, and whether my credits would transfer.”

The year before transferring to Simmons, Jacobs did the Summer Program to Advance Research Careers (SPARC) internship program at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. “I spent that summer in the Longwood Medical area,” she says. “There are a lot of opportunities there, and Simmons has a good reputation and connections to a lot of those institutions.” A reasonable commute from her home in Somerville, along with Jacobs’ interest in the Accelerated Program for Exercise Science and Physical Therapy, made Simmons the perfect choice. “I liked that it was a women’s-centered college. I went to an all-girl’s high school, so I felt at home at Simmons.”

Finding Belonging at Simmons

As both a transfer student in her junior year, and a commuter student, the initial entry to Simmons was challenging. “I had it in my head that I wouldn’t make any friends. Eventually, I started attending events. Every event with free food [on campus], I was there!” She encourages commuter students to look for resources on campus, from commuter lounges to free tutoring.

Jacobs also joined clubs, like the Afro-Caribbean Student Union (ACSU), and the Exercise Science Liaison. The ACSU’s biggest event was a fashion show held at the Museum of Science. The show, “We Are Not Decoration,” a collaboration with other Colleges of the Fenway, presented the experiences of BIPOC students at predominantly White institutions. While the experience required a lot of work, she encourages other students to apply for SGA funds for planning ambitious events. “If you imagine an event that will benefit the community, try your best to make it happen. It could be exactly what the community needs.”

Finding Off-Campus Work

Knowing that she would need to work during her undergraduate studies, Jacobs applied to a handful of research assistant positions at nearby institutions, through the Simmons Career Education Center. She landed a position in the Harvard Medical School’s Ginty Lab, a neurobiology lab where she assisted Dr. Charalampia Koutsioumpa MD, PhD (then a PhD student at Harvard Medical School) researching how sensory neurons develop over time. With mice as models, they used Alkaline Phosphatase Stain — an enzyme reaction based imaging technique — to visualize how neurons look.

“We looked at morphologies of neurons,” Jacobs recalls. “How many branchings did we see at the ends of the neurons? How big are they? We also looked at different markers to see how they change over time and how these influence how neurons grow.”

Jacobs worked at the Ginty Lab throughout her time at Simmons, gaining useful experience and mentorship from the research fellows she assisted. “It made me fall in love with research.” Not only that, but her connections led to further opportunities, like shadowing Sarah Low, a Postdoc in the Ginty Lab and a Harvard Medical School / Massachusetts General Hospital Anesthesiology Attending, in surgeries. “They helped me to become the aspiring scientist I wanted to be.”

A Pivot Toward Research

In 2023, Jacobs received the Senior Scholar Award based on the research she did in the Ginty Lab under the guidance of her mentor, Dr. Koutsioumpa. "Through our research,” Jacobs explained, “we aim to understand the sensory neuron development and its functions under normal conditions. This will contribute to the development of treatments for disorders associated with dysfunctions of the peripheral nervous system." The resulting article, “Skin-type-dependent Development of Murine Mechanosensory Neurons,” was published in Developmental Cell, (volume 58, issue 20, October 2023).

While she also interned at Bay State Physical Therapy, a Cambridge physical therapy clinic focused on clinical work, ultimately, Jacobs realized she liked research better. Jacobs chose not to complete the Physical Therapy degree, instead choosing a more research-focused path. Now, Jacobs is a member of the inaugural cohort of the Bay Area RaMP Program in Microbiome Sciences, which trains post-baccalaureates toward “an inclusive and diverse workforce in microbiome sciences,” while offering mentorship and support.

“I’m still learning things on the job,” says Jacobs, of her current research in genomics and microbiology. “You can go into it without knowing. The skills you learn [in the lab] are transferable. The content needs to be learned, but not necessarily in the classroom. Don’t let the knowledge you have, or don’t have right now, deter you. There are so many things to learn.”

Jacobs has made a connection between her studies in Exercise Science and Neurobiology. “[Exercise Science] has a lot to do with movement, like how the spinal cord and neurons are connected, and how everything is connected,” she says. “There are a lot of Simmons students and graduates in the lab, including biology majors and psychology majors. Some have deeper connections [to neurobiology] but others are not obvious on the surface.”

Jacobs credits her studies at Simmons and her work at Dana-Farber and Harvard Medical School for teaching her how to do research. “All of my experiences contributed to where I am now. Even my labs for exercise physiology.” Those labs included full experiments, data collection, analysis, a ten-page report, an abstract, and references. “That definitely helped me understand what clinical research could look like.”

Jacobs is looking forward to starting her PhD in Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina. “My hope is to investigate how the immune system is impacted by exercise, especially in helping people recover from illness or fight disease,” says Jacobs. “If we can naturally heal our bodies through movement, that sounds great to me.” Particularly in Black communities, where people experience barriers to treatment, higher risks of particular health conditions, and mistreatment from medical professionals, Jacobs sees exercise as a potent catalyst for change.

Publish Date


Alisa Libby