UK Announces Inaugural Class of AARTS Scholars

The Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Center (SCoBIRC), in collaboration with the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, has selected five undergraduate students for the inaugural African American Research Training Scholars (AARTS) program.

This scholarship program was recently established to provide vital research opportunities for Black undergraduate students at the University of Kentucky as part of the SCoBIRC’s continued efforts to increase representation in neuroscience, a field in which Black and African American students and faculty are underrepresented nationwide.

The five students selected for the AARTS program possess an impressive average GPA over 3.5. They also have declared a major in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field and have completed at least one semester of independent research in neuroscience.

These students, listed with their research projects and their mentors, are:

  • Nolan Abdelsayed, “Neuroinflammation as a Contributor to Secondary Brain Injury Following a Mild Closed Head Injury” (Mentor: Adam Bachstetter, PhD, department of neuroscience)
  • Jordon Burdette, “Cellular Regeneration in the Injured Spinal Cord” (Mentor: Warren Alilain, PhD, department of neuroscience)
  • Urim Geleta, “MicroRNA Regulation of Neuroinflammation Following TBI” (Mentor: Joe Springer, PhD, director of SCoBIRC)
  • Alexa Halliburton, “Age and Social Enrichment as Determining Factors in SCI Recovery” (Mentor: John Gensel, PhD, department of physiology)
  • Bisimwa (Jack) Nzerhumana, “Mitochondrial Uncoupling Promotes Energy Metabolism Following TBI” (Mentor: Patrick Sullivan, PhD, department of neuroscience)

Nzerhumana, a junior studying neuroscience and psychology, said the AARTS scholarship will help him follow a passion in research he has held since he was young. When he was 6 years old, Nzerhumana suffered a subdural hematoma but made a miraculous recovery, which left him amazed at the power of the human brain. He hopes that as a researcher, he will be able to make a difference in people’s lives just like those who helped him heal. Particularly, he wants to give back to the communities in Kentucky and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he is from.

In the AARTS program, Nzerhumana will continue to study traumatic brain injury (TBI), specifically how mitochondria dysfunction causes damage from TBIs to progress. He wants to discover if there is a type of protein that stops mitochondria from causing more damage.

Feeling “on top of the world” after receiving the scholarship, Nzerhumana said he wants to pay it forward for future minority students. With fellow scholars Abdelsayed and Halliburton, he currently is developing a club for minority students who are interested in pursuing careers in neuroscience. He said he cherishes the opportunity to serve as a role model in his field.

“I want to make sure minority students see that they can also pursue research,” he said. “I want to allow them to see someone who has done this before, to show them it’s doable.”

Mark Prendergast, PhD, director of the undergraduate neuroscience program, said that nationally, less than five percent of neuroscience undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty who teach STEM come from underrepresented minorities, including those who identify as Black or African American. Thanks to UK’s attention toward addressing this critical need, 10 percent of undergraduate neuroscience majors identify as Black or African American, and in the first-year class this fall, nearly 19 percent of neuroscience majors identify as Black or African American.

“UK and the neuroscience community have demonstrated a commitment to increasing diversity in neuroscience at all levels,” Dr. Prendergast said. “The AARTS program is a continuing demonstration of the campus-wide neuroscience commitment to this mission.”

The SCoBIRC will provide $25,000 total to the AARTS program, with each student receiving a summer stipend of $3,000, as well as $2,000 to present and network at a national meeting, attend online workshops and courses, and purchase books and supplies. The AARTS program is funded with support from the Kentucky Spinal Cord and Brain Injury Research Trust.

Each scholar will begin training in the 2021 spring semester, followed by full-time work in their labs during the summer.