Senior Honors Grad Uses Research to Propel Himself to New Heights


Much to his surprise, senior honors student and molecular biology major Vernon Kennedy Jr. unexpectedly fell in love with research when he arrived at the College of Charleston. And his research, in turn, has propelled him to amazing new heights.

His affinity for research was first incubated in 2019 when he started working with psychology professor Jennifer Wilhelm in her lab, conducting clinical neuroscience research on the effects that estrogen signaling and exercise have on spinal cord changes following a nerve injury.

Last year, his research skills were recognized nationally when he was named a Goldwater Scholar. More recently, he was one of just 60 students from across the country selected to participate in the Council on Undergraduate Research’s 2021 Posters on the Hill event.

So what’s next for Kennedy after he graduates in May?

He’s taking his research talents to the National Institutes of Health. Kennedy is headed to Baltimore, MD to work at the NIH as a Post-baccalaureate Fellow in the Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program. He’ll be working on a project within the Institute on Aging, studying the secretory function of the choroid plexus.

We asked him a few questions to learn more about how his time at CofC helped propel him towards the IRTA program and beyond.

What excites you most about your post-grad plans? 

The NIH is literally the hub of biomedical research in this country. As an aspiring physician-scientist, nothing excited me more than having the opportunity to study and collaborate with some of the brightest minds in science.

How did the Honors College (and CofC in general) help prepare you for the IRTA Program? 

Both the Honors College and CofC have been very helpful in preparing me for this transition. They’ve been incredibly supportive of my research over the past few years, providing me with SURF, MAYS, and RPG funding at various points across my tenure. The College’s unique campus dynamic has allowed me to gain research experiences and scientific autonomy comparable to that found in grad school. I have participated in numerous research conferences/presentations, receiving several awards for my work, with my most notable accomplishment being named a 2020 Barry Goldwater Scholar. I know for certain that without the College’s support, I would not have had the opportunity to matriculate to the NIH in the coming months.

What’s something you did during college that you never would have imagined yourself doing? 

Falling in love with research! I came into college strictly premed. At that time, I knew that research was something I had to do in order to be competitive for medical school, so I sort of viewed it as just another prerequisite. It wasn’t until I got deeply involved with the scientific process that I saw how much I needed science (not just medicine) to be a continuing part of my career.

If you could somehow bottle up one feature of life at CofC and bring it with you to Baltimore, what would it be?

I’d definitely bottle up the CofC Gospel Choir (CCGC) and take them straight to Baltimore! I’ve been singing since I was a kid, and since I’ve gotten to college CCGC has always been a home for me. I always looked forward to rehearsal each week. Being able to sing each week with some of my best friends has been an incredible outlet for me over the past four years, and I am forever grateful for them.

If you could travel back in time and talk with your freshmen self, what advice would you offer about the college experience? 

I would tell myself that I am enough, and that I belong. As a Black male at the College, there were so many times (particularly towards the beginning) where I constantly questioned my adequacy as a student and member of this community. Being the only Black person and/or male in so many classes and professional spaces certainly had its impact. Either case, the latter portion of my time here has definitely shown me that since the beginning I’ve always had what it takes, and that I 100% deserve to be in the position that I’m in.


Our conversation with Vernon Kennedy Jr. is part of an on-going series called WHAT’S NEXT, where we highlight just a few of the extraordinary next steps for graduating Honors students.


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