Neuroscience and behavior Ph.D. student Mélise Edwards and her advisor, Professor Agnès Lacreuse, are among the 50 winners of this year’s Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study for dissertation adviser–graduate student pairs. The award is part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) program to promote diversity and inclusion in science.
“I am really thankful for the few really incredible mentors, including peer mentors, who reminded me that my GPA was not indicative of my intelligence and that I would excel in graduate school,” says Edwards, a biracial Black woman from North Carolina. “I’m so glad I listened to them instead of the countless naysayers who tried to convince me not to pursue science or graduate school.”
Lacreuse says she’s “thrilled and honored” to have received the award with Mélise. “The Fellowship recognizes Mélise’s excellence in neuroscience, anti-racism activism, and mentorship leadership,” she says. “In the two years I’ve had the pleasure to mentor her, I have been thoroughly impressed by her insatiable drive to answer big scientific questions, her enthusiasm for neuroscience, and her creative mind.”
For up to three years, each adviser-student pair will receive an annual award totaling $50,000 to pursue scientific research. Examples of past recipients’ research topics include studying how malaria parasite broods destroy red blood cells and investigating the source of pollution behind harmful algal blooms in a river used by the Seneca Nation and other communities.
“I am struck by the scientific maturity of these students,” says David Asai, HHMI’s senior director for science education. “They’re all doing great science, and they can talk about it in a way that people understand.” He added that the advisers play a key role in fostering a more inclusive academic scientific environment.
Mentorship is a Gilliam hallmark, and one of the ways the program is fostering a cultural shift on campuses. Since HHMI’s Gilliam Program started in 2004, it has worked hard to ensure that students from populations historically excluded and underrepresented in science are prepared to become leaders in the field.
This isn’t Edwards’ first honor this year. She also won a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship and a Graduate Women in Science research grant. Edwards is excited that the awards allow her to focus on her research as well as “invest in the other initiatives I am passionate about,” she says.
“By thinking out of the box, and using a combination of behavioral, imaging, electrophysiological and molecular approaches in a nonhuman primate model, the marmoset,”
Edwards says, her research investigates how hormones like estrogen affect cognition as people age and may predispose people with ovaries to Alzheimer’s disease.
She uses different techniques to explore this. “I work with both animal models and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to ask how estrogens affect synaptic homeostasis in the brain,” Edwards says. “In animal models, we use pharmacological approaches to deliver estrogen directly to the brain; we then utilize cognitive tests the animals perform on a touchscreen computer and brain imaging to look at the signaling imbalances which may or may not be occurring in the brain with sustained estrogen levels.”
Lacreuse believes Edwards’ project “holds great potential for better understanding sex differences in Alzheimer’s and the role hormones play in cognition and age-related cognitive decline” in general, she says.
Calling Edwards a trailblazer is an understatement. In the first year of her Ph.D. program, she started MUSE (Mentorship for Underrepresented STEM Enthusiasts) to provide representation and mentorship to underrepresented scholars in STEM fields. She’s also collaborated with other black scholars at UMass to organize monthly events and retreats to build a community, working tirelessly to promote diversity and inclusion.
“I am looking forward to working with Mélise and the exceptional talents of the HHMI group to improve mentoring and create a more inclusive culture in neuroscience,” says Lacreuse.
Talk about paying it forward. Edwards emphasizes the need to strongly advocate for severely underrepresented students, recommending they apply for the Center for Research on Families’ Graduate Student Grant Writing Program with Professor Rebecca Spencer as well as that PIs nominate their underrepresented students for Spaulding-Smith Fellows funding before they start their first semester of the Ph.D. program.