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The Howard Hughes Medical Institute has selected 50 doctoral students and their advisors to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences. From the UNC School of Medicine, graduate student Nancy Sey and her advisors Hyejung Won, PhD, and Joyce Besheer, PhD, were named Gilliam Fellows.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has announced 50 new Gilliam fellowships awarded to graduate students conducting outstanding research in their respective scientific fields and their advisors, who are committed to building a more inclusive scientific ecosystem. For up to three years, each advisor-student pair will receive an annual award totaling $50,000.

From the UNC School of Medicine, third-year neuroscience graduate student Nancy Sey and her co-advisors Hyejung Won, PhD, assistant professor in the department of Genetics, and Joyce Besheer, PhD, associate professor in the department of Psychiatry and member of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, were selected.

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 advisors who are selected for their scientific leadership and commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

Originally from Ghana, Sey began pursuing her higher education at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she received her BS in psychology and graduated magna cum laude. She then turned her sights on UNC’s Postbaccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), where she worked in the lab of Donita Robinson, PhD, studying the neurobiological effects of adolescent intermittent alcohol exposure. Sey is now a third-year graduate student working in the lab of Hyejung Won, PhD, conducting research using experimental and computational approaches to study the genetic etiology and neurobiological mechanisms underlying substance abuse and psychiatric illnesses.

Sey’s research efforts are impressive. As a graduate student she has published three papers, two of which she is first author, and one of which was published in the prestigious Nature Neuroscience. Not only is Sey an outstanding scientist, she is also one who gives back to the community through outreach. She works with programs like NC DNA Day, UNC Science Expo, and is a co-leader for DNA Day Connect, which partners graduate students with high school teachers in rural North Carolina to promote science literacy. Sey has also collaborated with middle schools in her home country of Ghana to organize a DNA Day for students there.

Sey and her co-advisors are now part of a growing community 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. The addition of this year’s new group brings the total number of Gilliam Fellows to 351.

HHMI created the Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study in honor of the late James H. Gilliam, Jr. A charter trustee of HHMI, Gilliam was a respected business and civic leader who spent his life nurturing excellence and diversity in science and education.