Nathaniel Harnett and Kirsten Schoonover are at the front of the pack in a national effort to increase diversity in neuroscience.
The two University of Alabama at Birmingham graduate students — and just 10 other predoctorates from underrepresented backgrounds across the United States — won inaugural neuroscience awards last year from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, or NINDS. This award provides two years of graduate school funding, followed by four years of continuous support through their critical postgraduate career stage.
These prestigious awards — which include stipends and funds for travel and supplies — enhance their freedom to pick and choose great postdoctoral positions. At the same time, the NINDS initiative requires them to work closely with mentors to map out research plans to finish their Ph.D. degrees and plot the courses of their postgraduate research.
The aim is an enhanced pool of well-trained, diverse neuroscientists who will pursue academic research careers. Neuroscience trainees from underrepresented backgrounds make up 14 percent of graduate school trainees, 9 percent of postdoctoral trainees and just 5 percent of those in the neuroscience tenure stream.
NINDS is a part of the National Institutes of Health.
The awards that Harnett and Schoonover won go by a bulky name: NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience Award, or D-SPAN.
A special, NIH-funded program in the UAB Graduate School is one reason for UAB’s D-SPAN success.
Harnett and Schoonover were among the first UAB neuroscience students invited to join the UAB Neuroscience Roadmap Scholars, which now includes 33 graduate students. “We provide a community that is supportive,” said Farah Lubin, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and co-director of the Roadmap Scholars program. “We provide an environment that allows them to express themselves, and we provide them tools to succeed, such as courses, professional workshops and mock NIH study sections.”
Roadmap Scholars has helped Harnett and Schoonover flourish. “The Roadmap Scholars program has been fabulous,” Schoonover said.
Harnett has published seven papers, four as first author. He will finish his Ph.D. defense by the end of summer, and then do postdoctoral training with Kerry Ressler, M.D., Ph.D., chief scientific officer and chair of Psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts.
“We are writing the transition application and hammering out the plan now,” Harnett said.
Schoonover will finish her Ph.D. by next spring. She has published one first-author paper and has two more under review, and she has begun the search for her postdoctoral mentor. She also won the UAB Three Minute Thesis competition in 2017.
Falling in love with neuroscience
Harnett and Schoonover come from different backgrounds, but they both fell in love with neuroscience by chance.
Harnett grew up in New York’s Southern Tier. He had an African-American heritage and a grandmother who emigrated from Italy, and he chose Ithaca College for its music conservatory. Then the tuba and trombone player went to a neuroscience class. “It’s funny how one lecture can change your life,” he said.
Schoonover grew up in Procius, West Virginia, where the high school has 200 students. She intended to be a lawyer and hated science, but became interested in psychology at the University of West Virginia. “When I took Biological Foundations of Behavior, a required course, I kind of fell in love with it, how genetics can modify animal behavior,” she said.
Harnett and Schoonover credit their UAB mentors as linchpins of their success, including reviews of their D-SPAN applications and helping plan their thesis research.
Harnett studies the effects of post-traumatic stress following acute medical trauma, such as blunt force injuries and stabbings, working in the lab of David Knight, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, UAB College of Arts and Sciences.
Schoonover studies the genetic regulation of copper homeostasis in schizophrenia, working in the lab of Rosalinda Roberts, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurobiology, UAB School of Medicine.
Send the elevator back down
Both students are setting high goals for their postdoctoral training. “Part of the goal for the fellowship is to get us through the training path to become tenure-track faculty,” Harnett said. “Learn how to run our own lab, hire technicians, work with graduate students, work with postdocs, write grants and be successful.”
Schoonover wants postdoctoral training where she can expand her methodological skills, do more molecular biology and equip herself with as many skills as possible.
“Kirsten and Nate,” Lubin said, “are truly awesome individuals. I have watched them grow in their science, grow in their levels of professionalism and grow in their confidence. They kept submitting funding applications for graduate fellowships, and we’re very proud of them.”
Lubin herself is part of the underrepresented in neuroscience, as a woman who emigrated from Haiti to New York City when she was young. She says she always has a message for Harnett, Schoonover and all the other accomplished Roadmap Scholars at UAB.
“I tell the students,” she said, “that after you’ve ridden the elevator up, make sure you hit the button to send the elevator back down for someone else to follow.”