Meet the Researcher - Vernon Kennedy

Breakout Room: 4

VernonKennedyResearcher Name: Vernon Kennedy
Title of Research: Estrogen signaling is required for treadmill exercise mediated effects on synaptic plasticity around axotomized spinal motoneurons
Division Representing: Biology
Institution: College of Charleston
Institution Location: South Carolina
Home State: South Carolina
District Number: 1
Advisor/Mentor: Jennifer Wilhelm
Funding Source: National Institutes of Health Grant and the College of Charleston; National Institutes of Health  
Scholarships: 2020 Goldwater Scholarship

Research Experience:  
Since January 2019 I have worked in the neuroscience lab of Dr. Jenn Wilhelm as the Lead Student Researcher. The time I've spent on this project has been met with my complete dedication. Over the years, I have applied for and received several competitive campus research grants to support my work during the summer and academic years. I have presented my project on numerous occasions and received a number of awards, with my most notable accomplishment being my recognition as a 2020 Barry Goldwater Scholar. As an aspiring physician-scientist, I am incredibly grateful for these experiences, and appreciative that I have been able to cultivate skills and practices that are invaluable for a future career in research.  Outside of the laboratory, I'm extensively involved with my campus community through several employment and extracurricular outlets. I work on campus as a Pre-Health Mentor in the Office of Health Professions Advising at the College. Through this position, I meet with pre-health students from across campus and mentor them as they undergo undergraduate preparation for various health related careers. One of my notable extracurriculars includes my role as President of Student Ambassadors. We are an organization committed to the recruitment and retention of minority/first generation students here at the College. Lastly, I currently serve as Vice President of SCAMP, an enrichment program for underrepresented minorities who are pursuing careers in the STEM fields. Both of these organizations engage with the Charleston community at large through outreach and service opportunities. 

Presentation Experience: 
I have presented my research at numerous functions to a vast array of audiences, utilizing posters, oral presentations and videos. Nationally speaking, I've shared my work on two occasions. In October 2019, I gave a poster presentation at Society for Neuroscience: Neuroscience 2019 in Chicago, IL. Most recently, I gave an oral presentation at ABRCMS 2020: The Virtual Experience, where I received a presentation award for my talk. I am also excited to mention that I will be presenting at this year's NCUR 2021. Concerning regional meetings, I was slated to present a poster and give an oral talk at the 2020 Symposium for Young Neuroscientists and Professors of the SouthEast (SYNAPSE), but this conference was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID-19. However, I was awarded one of only five travel awards to travel to Farmville, VA and give my talk. I have given presentations locally several times, including the College of Charleston Celebration of Summer Scholars on two separate occasions. My initial presentation in 2019 was done using a poster, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my 2020 presentation was conducted using a vlog format. In October 2019 I shared my work via an oral presentation at both the Phi Kappa Phi Summit of Scholars and the 2019 SCAMP Research Banquet. All of this experience has given me the versatility needed to communicate my science in a format comprehendible by a diverse range of audiences. 

Significance of Research:       
Each year 100,000 Americans experience injuries to their nerves. Most of these patients don't fully recover and are left with various physical deficits. This inadequate healing often results from the negative changes that take place in the spinal cord after injury. Following peripheral nerve injury, many of the connections within the spinal cord can be lost or remodeled. These changes result in miscommunication between the spinal cord and muscles, leading to muscle spasms and muscle degeneration. Previous research suggests that exercise coupled with testosterone treatments can mitigate this reorganization. In this study, we explored whether estrogen could potentially have similar effects. Using a mouse model, we surgically injured the sciatic nerve of the right hind limb. Injured nerves were marked with a fluorescent dye and the animals were treated with various combinations of estrogen, exercise and an estrogen receptor blocking agent. Following this period, tissue samples from the spinal cord were harvested and sliced into sections. Spinal cord sections were stained for certain connections and changes in these connections were observed via fluorescent microscopy. Preliminary results show a decrease in the reorganization of connections after estrogen treatments are applied compared to untreated animals. We also observed that preventing estrogen signaling during exercise eliminates the positive effects of exercise therapy. These findings are significant because they suggest that estrogen signaling is essential for exercise-dependent recovery methods. Further illuminating the relationship between sex hormones and the recovery of injured nerves can potentially lead to effect therapeutic methods for humans. 

Uniqueness of Research: 
When patients suffer the types of nerve injuries mentioned above, surgery and/or physical therapy are usually the treatment plan prescribed by physicians. However, many of these individuals are unable to engage in such therapy due to their physical conditions. We are hoping to come up with a pharmaceutical intervention to treat patients that encounter these types of injuries.