Graduate Pursues Neuroscientific Research to Improve Health Among Minority Patients

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During years of armed conflict in her homeland of Colombia, Diana Grass, daughter of a military family, relocated 20 times and attended 13 different public schools before becoming the first woman in her family to attend college.

But after graduation, when she immigrated to the U.S., she discovered the teaching jobs she hoped to find required further education, which she couldn’t afford.

Instead, she found work in a doctor’s office, where many of the patients had neurological and psychiatric conditions, and many were people of color. “I saw the many barriers that minorities - especially Latinx – faced in the medical system,’’ she said. “Translating for patients with neurological and mental health conditions really inspired me,” said Grass, a Neuroscience and Behavior major at the Rutgers-Newark Honors College.

The job sparked an interest in the field of neuroscience, where as a Rutgers-Newark student, she has been dedicated to research on improving the health of African Americans and advocating for minority STEM students.  She has also pursued innovative research in areas including neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and immunology, and focused on addressing disparities facing patients of color in the health care system. 

This includes her current work with Neuroria — a student movement based out of the RU-N’s Honor’s College that Grass founded — which promotes brain health education to prevent neurological and mental conditions in the youth, with a specific focus in minority communities.

Grass received support throughout her time at Rutgers-Newark as a McNair Scholar. The program’s mission is to prepare students from low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented backgrounds for doctoral studies. “I really feel that it’s not just about having resources, but also having great guidance, and that is what McNair provided for me,’’ said Grass. “Guidance from the beginning. They wanted to make sure I had access to excellent research experiences.’’

She also received support from the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program.

After graduation, Grass will join the Engineering and Medical Physics PhD Program at Harvard and MIT, she is only the second student from Rutgers to be accepted.

Grass’s mentors at Rutgers-Newark include Dr. Mark Gluck, professor of Neuroscience and Dr. Stephen Hanson, professor and director of Rutgers Brain Imaging Center (RUBIC). Another mentor has been Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald-Bocarsly, Provost of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences-Newark and Vice-Chair for Research of the Department of Pathology, Immunology and Laboratory Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

“I first met Diana when she took my Introduction to Neuroscience course and she quickly stood out as one of the star students,” recalled Gluck. “When she shifted to being an undergraduate neuroscience honors research intern in our lab, she took a leading role in building a new collaboration between our lab and the Immunology labs at NJ Medical School.”

Gluck heads the Aging & Brain Health Alliance, an interdisciplinary, university-community collaboration to expand the understanding of aging, brain health, and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease among populations with an elevated risk for dementia, especially African Americans, who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease at more than twice the rate of the general population.

During the COVID 19 pandemic, Diana became more interested in understanding the immune system's role in neurodegeneration and joined Dr. Bocarsly’s immunology lab, thanks to a  multi-institution collaborative study at New Jersey Medical School, a neurochemistry lab at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and a multi-site clinical care unit in New Jersey. Guided by Drs. Bocarsly and Gluck, Diana’s research explored the cognitive, neural and immunological consequences of COVID-19 in older African Americans and how they relate to Alzheimer’s Disease risks.

“My research experiences at the intersection of neuroscience and immunology and Dr. Hanson’s instruction on artificial intelligence and the brain, and neuroimaging methods, made it clear to me that I wanted to pursue a PhD,'' said Grass.

Grass chose to attend Rutgers-Newark, not only for its academic programs, but its diversity and emphasis on inclusion, which presented the ideal home for her to begin her research.

"I saw that they built out a curriculum that was unique for this area of the country. But also knowing that Rutgers-Newark is one of the most diverse campuses in the United States, that really helped me to feel welcome because I was not an outlier and I didn’t need to justify myself. I really feel what is unique about Rutgers is its richness in diversity,’’ she said.

She said she’s thankful that Rutgers-Newark has so many resources in place to help first-generation immigrant students like her succeed.

“All of the people that years ago believed that by creating and promoting inclusion and opportunities for minority students that they could make a difference in the community, I want to say to them: thank you,” she said. “Because now I am a witness that yes, all that they did and what they believe is true."