Arts & Sciences School of Medicine

‘Thank you, #WashU20’ features Claire Weichselbaum, Kow Essuman

Illustrations by Monica Duwel

To the Class of 2020: Thank you. For your commitment to academic excellence. For your service to the St. Louis community. For your support of your fellow students. For your devotion to your labs, your teams, your campus organizations. You made Washington University in St. Louis better. We wish we could express our gratitude to each one of you; instead, we deliver these postcards of appreciation highlighting students who embody the spirit of your Class of 2020…

…Thank you, Claire Weichselbaum, for bringing the joy of science — and human brains — to St. Louis children.

Weichselbaum was always interested in science, although she didn’t know it. Memorizing facts wasn’t particularly exciting. But getting a pet was.

“When we got a dog, I was so fascinated by having this other, intelligent species that I couldn’t communicate with,” she said. “I had no idea what was inside his head.”
She wanted to know: what were animals — dogs, humans or otherwise — thinking? That’s when she discovered neuroscience. Working in a lab in college, getting hands-on experience as a scientist, she thought, “I’ve got to get kids exposed to this part of science when they’re younger.”

With the help of fellow neuroscience graduate student Brian Lananna, Brain Discovery was born.

The program pairs fourth, fifth and sixth graders with working scientists who visit once a week, for six weeks. Weichselbaum and Lananna chose those grades because research shows middle school is when someone decides that they are, or aren’t, a “science person.”

The kids get to see, and touch, a human brain, among other hands-on science. Students discover for themselves that one thing can be studied in different ways, from MRI images to looking at neurons under a microscope to electrophysiology.

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Thank you, Kow Essuman, for researching how nerve cells die to help find new ways to treat people with neurodegenerative diseases.

Essuman expects to graduate with medical and doctorate degrees in May. He soon will begin a residency in neurosurgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Twice named a fellow of the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Medical Research Fellows Program, Essuman has focused on ways to block nerve cell degeneration, a common factor in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and other debilitating conditions that affect millions of Americans.

“Through my education, particularly during medical school, I began to appreciate the notion of making a difference in the world and being a leader in a field, and I focused on how I might achieve those goals through high-risk, large-impact research that would improve human health,” Essuman said.

His research has significantly contributed to the discovery of a new family of enzymes, one of which is actively being targeted to block neurodegeneration. “Hopefully, these scientific contributions will continue in the next phase of neurosurgery and will buttress my clinical practice,” he said.

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