Niesha Savory, a clinical neuroscience and psychology undergraduate student at Virginia Tech who conducts research at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, has always been fascinated with how the brain works. 

Mentored by Shannon Farris, assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Savory was recently awarded a Research Supplement to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). 

“I always wanted to be a doctor — that’s what I told my family. They found anatomy books for me to read, I would borrow books from the library, and I adored reading about the brain and the nervous system,” Savory said. “The books all said everyone’s brain was built and works about the same way. Yet, I remember thinking, why am I a pretty good kid, while the kid sitting next to me at school is so obnoxious? Our brains were about the same, we were the same age, but our behavior was so different. I needed to know why — that got the ball rolling for me.”

Savory’s search for answers progressed from reading books to taking classes about brain anatomy. After graduation from Cosby High School in Midlothian, Virginia, she enrolled in the Virginia Tech College of Science's School of Neuroscience.

In 2019, through the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Early Identification Program, Savory learned about the National Institutes of Health-funded, 10-week neuroSURF program at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, and she spent the summer working in Farris’s lab. 

“That’s how I got here,” Savory said. “Our lab is small enough so that I know everyone, but it’s mighty. Dr. Farris directly works with me on my project, so I get a lot of face time with the principal investigator of the lab – that’s a huge plus for an undergraduate.”

Researchers in the Farris lab study how connections between individual neurons, synapses, change when mice learn or experience new things. They look at how those changes affect memory storage and social behavior. 

With Farris’s encouragement, Savory applied for the NIMH award, which fosters diversity by supporting the career development of those underrepresented in the scientific workforce. NIMH officials called Savory a promising candidate in neuroscience with access to an excellent research environment and mentoring team. 

Just as important, the lab has received a great addition, Farris said.

“Niesha’s unique personal experiences and perspectives add value to my research program, and she has the aptitude and intellect to make significant contributions to neuroscience research and medicine,” said Farris, who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and in the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine.

Savory, who expects to graduate in spring 2022, aims to use her research experience as a launching pad to earn medical and doctoral degrees.

“I hope to become an M.D./Ph.D., ideally studying dementia caused by Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases while also seeing patients afflicted by those very diseases,” Savory said.

If along the way she can serve as an example to help others, all the better. Savory is profiled on the website Black In Neuro, which celebrates diversity in neuroscience.

“I don’t see a lot of Black people or Black women in neuroscience with M.D. and Ph.D. degrees,” Savory said. “It would be great to be able to inspire a younger generation and to show you don't have to be deterred from your career goals just because you don’t see people who look like you.”