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A Gifted Science Student Discovers her Mission

Learning about compassion while studying spinal cord injury 

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Avina Rami was always strong in science.

She graduated from Biotechnology High School in Freehold, New Jersey, a magnet school where the academic program is intensely focused on biology, technology, and engineering.

But it was at Rutgers, in the W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience, where Rami, a graduating senior in the Class of 2019, found the calling that would drive her research and exert a profound influence over the direction of her undergraduate work.

That calling was spinal cord injury, a devastating condition that blocks communication between brain and body,leaving patients paralyzed and needing help with everyday tasks such as eating, dressing, and going to the bathroom.

Entering Rutgers, she knew little about spinal cord injury, and had never met anyone living with the condition. Then she attended a lecture for undergraduates given by Wise Young, an SAS professor of Cell Biology and Neuroscience who is the founding director of the Keck Center, and one of the world's foremost experts on spinal cord injury.

“I was trying to decide where I should do research, and I was looking at different facilities,” says Rami, a student at the Douglass Residential College and Rutgers Honors College.“I remember taking my seat in the conference room, listening to Dr. Young’s lecture, and just being drawn to the work of the Keck Center.”

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She was impressed by Young’s vision for treating spinal cord injury and the down-to-earth way he explained his work to students. She was also struck by his emphasis on collaboration. 

“I was coming from a very competitive environment,” she said. “And listening to Dr. Young, you get the sense that research is more than a competition. It’s a life mission.”

The full scope of that mission hit home when Rami started doing undergraduate research at Keck. She worked in the lab but also became part of the larger community that Keck has helped build over 20 years—a network that stretches beyond the university and includes patients and their families from throughout the region. Every month, the center opens up its doors to the public, drawing dozens of people in wheelchairs and their loved ones who come to learn about the latest research.

“I think what differentiates the Keck Center is it’s a place where you get to see who your research touches. You never forget what it’s all about. It’s always about the people.”

Rami, who majored in cell biology and neuroscience, has worked on various research projects at Keck, including one that examines the role of the immune system in spinal cord injury. Rami was also selected as the student speaker at the 30th anniversary of the Douglass Project for Rutgers Women in Math, Science, and Engineering.

Last spring she and another student traveled with Young to Taiwan where they presented research at the Pan Pacific Symposium on Stem Cells and Cancer Research. That trip, as well as a Study Abroad mission to Peru, where she volunteered in a clinic, has raised her interest in international healthcare as career.

“I can honestly say that the Keck Center has allowed me to grow in ways I could not have foreseen,” she says. “It has not only shaped me as a scientist, but has allowed me to grow into a more devoted student and compassionate person.”

Over the last year she has worked as a research scholar with the Department of Genetics and Development at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Through this experience, she worked with genome-editing technology used to remove a mutated gene and replace it with a functional copy of the gene.

After graduation, she plans to work as a research technician at the medical center and then applying for medical school.

"The thing I'll miss most about Rutgers is all of the people - friends, fellow peers, faculty, or staff," she says. Every person I've connected with has shaped my life and future in some way.

"Rutgers has been my home for the past four years and is a place I will continue to consider my home for the rest of my life."

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