Prestigious NIH grant enables neuroscientific Ph.D. Student for further success – VCU News


Martina Hernandez found out via SMS that she had been awarded a prestigious scholarship. She was in the lab when the official email from the National Institutes for Health landed in her inbox, and it was a congratulatory message from her faculty advisor that broke the good news when Hernandez got a chance to check her phone.

“I was kind of stunned,” said Hernandez, a neuroscientist with a PhD. student in Institute of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, which uses the pronouns she/her and they/they. “I wasn’t expecting this considering how competitive a scholarship is.”

Hernandez is one of only 20 students in the US to receive the 2022 Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience, or D-SPAN, award. The two-stage scholarship, which supports graduates from underrepresented groups in the neurosciences, facilitates the completion of a doctorate and the transition to a scientific postdoctoral position. For Hernandez, that means funding the rest of her PhD. at the VCU School of Medicine and up to four more years pursuing a career studying the mechanisms and comorbidities of migraine.

“We are very proud of Martina and the hard work and dedication that led to her selection for this prestigious fellowship,” said David Chelmow, MD, acting dean of the School of Medicine. “We look forward to the contributions and discoveries she will make throughout her career with this tremendous early career support.”

Find yourself in science

Fueled by a complex family medical history—her mother’s multiple sclerosis and chronic migraines, her father’s epilepsy, and her own mental illness and migraines—Hernandez has always been fascinated by the human brain. A high school anatomy class on the central nervous system, coinciding with her mother’s MS recurrence, cemented her interest in biochemistry and molecular biology, and she earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in biology of the humanities and sciences from VCU College.

Now in her sixth year as a Ph.D. Student Hernandez has found her place in neuroscience.

Audrey Lafrenaye, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Hernandez’s department of anatomy and neurobiology and faculty advisor, described her as determined, dependable, and “a joy in the lab.”

“Martina has great lab assistants, can pick things up quickly and has great humanity,” said Lafrenaye. “She’s always had the skills, and her growing confidence has really enhanced what she does.”

Building trust in academia was ongoing work for Hernandez. Growing up, she experienced bullying for being Latinx and hid her queer identity until halfway through college. Living at the intersection of identities underrepresented in science — while also dealing with anxiety, depression, and migraines that sometimes compounded to a debilitating effect — Hernandez often wondered if a career in research was the right thing to do.

“There were times when I didn’t necessarily feel like I belonged in science for various reasons, some of which concerned my mental health,” Hernandez said. “But once I realized that the support system that I have is there for me, I started to have more confidence.”

Once she settled into grad school, Hernandez said she found unprecedented support and camaraderie in her program. In addition to faculty mentoring, she became close friends and eventually partnered with another student who graduated from the neuroscience program two years ago.

“They just made me feel like I could be myself,” Hernandez said. “Also, my lab is a very welcoming and open space where I didn’t feel too weird or too eccentric to be myself in the work environment.”

According to her mentor, that’s on purpose. Lafrenaye has had frank conversations with Hernandez and other students about imposter syndrome and mental health issues to make these experiences less isolating.

“We’re as open as possible about the level to which trainees are satisfied in the lab,” Lafrenaye said. “Martina is really starting to see herself as a potential mentor and advisor for other students, and I think she will continue to be a strong presence in the neuroscience field.”


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