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Neuroscience summer program connects diverse students with WVU researchers

Two women wearing white lab jackets studying an image of a brain

Adaliz Torres Rosado, a student at the University of Puerto Rico, and Hecmarie Meléndez-Fernández, a Ph.D. candidate in the WVU Department of Neuroscience, conduct research examining the role of disrupted circadian rhythms by light at night on cardiovascular function. Led by Randy Nelson, their research is part of a summer program from the WVU Center for Foundational Neuroscience Research and Education Neuroscience Undergraduate Research Opportunities. (WVU Photo/Davidson Chan)

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A new summer program at West Virginia University is providing research opportunities in neuroscience for undergraduate students from underrepresented and global communities, including Ukraine.

Launched by WVU’s Center for Foundational Neuroscience Research and Education, Neuroscience Undergraduate Research Opportunities consists of two components – an in-person opportunity designed to bring underrepresented minority undergraduate students to campus and an online offering for Ukrainian undergraduate students.

The research-intensive summer program provides participants with the opportunity to experience WVU’s neuroscience research culture, facilities and resources and interact with innovative techniques and projects. By training undergraduate students who are interested in continuing their education and conducting state-of-the-art research, the program aims to meet the growing need for neuroscience graduate-level students with research experience.

“Our overall goal is to create an environment in which diversity, equity and inclusion is seamlessly integrated into the pursuit of research excellence,” said Randy Nelson, who chairs the  School of Medicine’s  Department of Neuroscience  and directs basic science research for the  Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute.

“This builds on Dean Laura Gibson’s goal to support DEI efforts at Health Sciences. It is well-established that diverse teams have an advantage over homogenous teams in solving complex problems, and so promoting diversity, equity and inclusion not only ensures fairness and equity, but will increase the innovation and quality of research being conducted at WVU.”

Throughout the nine-week, in-person experience, students focus on one of four areas – sensory, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, neural injury, neurodegeneration and neuropsychiatric diseases – as they work alongside faculty mentors. Among this year’s projects are traumatic brain injury as a trigger for cerebral small vessel disease, exercise protective effects after brain injury and the role of disrupted circadian rhythms by light at night on cardiovascular function.

For its inaugural session, in addition to cross-campus collaboration, program coordinators have partnered with the University of Puerto Rico and several Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Morgan State University, West Virginia State University and Xavier University of Louisiana, to encourage experiential learning opportunities among students.

“By providing a pipeline of excellent students from schools such as Howard University or the University of Puerto Rico to WVU, we hope to diversify our graduate program and hopefully continue to develop a diverse faculty,” Nelson explained. “We get to showcase and highlight our R1 research activities in neuroscience and increase the excellence of our university, which benefits the state.”

The second component of the summer program engages undergraduate students enrolled at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Ukraine. Led by School of Medicine Associate Professors Valeriya Gritsenko and Sergiy Yakovenko, the remote research offering focuses on computational neuroscience. Projects spanning from data analytics to motion capture and human performance tracking were selected for the summer program.

“The Ukrainian students’ analytical talent can help develop novel tracking technology that uses wearable sensors to deliver interventions and track the functional performance after stroke, spinal cord injury or limb amputation,” Yakovenko said. “That development of computational tools has a direct impact on the access to medical services in remote areas like rural West Virginia.”

As WVU maintains its status as an R1 highest-level research institution, Yakovenko says the partnerships developed through programs like NURO are essential to enabling growth.

“Our university has a global outreach to accomplish both the humanitarian educational role and the research role that relies on attracting talent to our university from the market with fierce competition from other institutions and industries,” Yakovenko said. “One of the main resources needed to maintain this high level of research is the access to the ever-increasing demand for talented STEM students.”

To expand opportunities in the future, coordinators plan to engage additional Ukrainian universities and integrate WVU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) and Initiation to Research Opportunities (INTRO) programs.

The Center for Foundational Neuroscience Research and Education fosters collaboration by providing opportunities for researchers across campus to use their unique skillsets and backgrounds to make neuroscience discoveries that might take much longer otherwise.

Established in 2020, the Center is supported by the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, Health Sciences, Eberly College of Arts & Sciences and Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.



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