Two SOM Students Earn 2020 HHMI Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has selected 45 doctoral students and their advisers to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences. From the UNC School of Medicine, graduate student Hernán Méndez and his advisor Kathleen Caron, PhD, and graduate student Sofia Neira and her advisor Thomas Kash, PhD, were named Gilliam Fellows.

Two SOM Students Earn 2020 HHMI Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study click to enlarge Hernán Méndez and Sofia Neira

August 3, 2020

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) created the Gilliam program in 2004 to increase the diversity among scientists who are prepared to assume leadership roles in science, particularly as college and university faculty. The program provides awards to pairs of students and their dissertation advisers who are selected for their scientific leadership and commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

Over the last 16 years, a growing community of doctoral students and their advisers has knit together, bound by a shared passion for science. They’re working on cutting-edge projects – such as studies of the gut microbiome, epigenetic mechanisms, and anti-cancer immunotherapeutics – and they’re trying to change the culture of science along the way.

Now, another 45 adviser-student pairs will become part of this community as awardees of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s 2020 Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study. The addition of this new group brings the total number of Gilliam Fellows to 301.

From the UNC School of Medicine, two student-advisor pairs were selected as Gilliam Fellows: graduate student Hernán Mendez and his advisor Kathleen Caron, PhD, chair and professor of the UNC Department of Cell Biology and Physiology; and graduate student Sofia Neira and her advisor Thomas Kash, PhD, the John Andrews Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology.

Méndez was born and raised in Puerto Rico. The natural wonders of Puerto Rico instilled in him an inherent fascination for the biological world. This fascination directed him into pursuing a bachelor degree in Biology at the University of Puerto Rico at Cayey. During his time there, he explored different research areas thanks to research fellowships and three summer research internships. In the Caron Lab, he is working to elucidate distinct aspect of cardiac lymphatics.

Neira, a native of Bogota, Colombia, received a BS in psychology from the University of Central Florida and came to UNC in 2016 for a post-baccalaureate program. She worked in the laboratory of Donita Robinson, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and member of the UNC Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, investigating the long-term effects of adolescent exposure to ethanol. Currently, in the Kash Lab, Neira is interested in circuit neuroscience and wants to understand and identify the neural circuits underlying the interactions between stress and alcohol.

Méndez and Neira joined the UNC School of Medicine's other Gilliam Fellows, Tigist Tamir (2016), Juanita Limas (2018) Megan Agajanian (2018), Shelsa Marcel (2019), Brea Hampton (2019), Andrew Hinton (2019), and Kristen Rivera (2019).

Read more at the HHMI website.

Caron is a member of the UNC McAllister Heart Institute and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Kash is a member of the UNC Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies.