PhD candidate relishing dream thousands of miles away
St Andrew High past student Jhodi Webster focuses heavily on how the brain works
Jhodi Webster at the Center for Neurodegeneration and Experimental Therapeutics, where she is completing her PhD thesis project on neuroinflammation in Parkinson's disease.

Without a scintilla of doubt, attending school abroad, away from family and best friends in Jamaica, has proven to be challenging at times for 25-year-old neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Jhodi Webster.

To the St Andrew High School for Girls alumna, it feels like she's doing what she needs to do while the people she has the strongest connections with and a "nice box lunch" are thousands of miles away.

Webster is a neuroscientist studying how the immune system in the brain contributes to the severity of the symptoms seen in the context of patients with neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.

"In high school, I had no other interests other than science and figured the only way to continue doing that was to pursue medicine. Not wanting to go straight into medical school, I followed in my sister's footsteps and went to school in the USA on a pre-med track. I was accepted to a few schools and chose Agnes Scott College, a small, women's liberal arts college in Atlanta. I started as a biology major, focusing on becoming a medical doctor," Webster told the Jamaica Observer.

To gain experience and fulfil pre-med requirements, she shadowed an internal medicine doctor at Grady Memorial Hospital during the summer after her second year.

That summer, she was also asked by one of her professors, Dr Jennifer Larimore, to do research in her laboratory under a research experience for undergraduates programme. Webster was accepted and received funding.

"I preferred being in the lab and doing neuroscience research, studying schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders and how related genes affected neuronal structure and function. After consulting with Dr Larimore, she invited me to join her lab as a full-time member for the remainder of my undergrad," she said.

"Learning more about the field and realising my interest in the brain, I changed my biology major to a neuroscience major and started applying to graduate PhD programmes. I got accepted for a spot in the neuroscience PhD programme at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where I joined the lab of Dr Ashley Harms, studying neuroinflammation in Parkinson's disease."

In addition, based on selection criteria, she was interviewed and selected for the Dupont Neuroscience Award, which funded the remainder of her research for her senior thesis project and travel expense to present her research at scientific conferences.

Matriculating into the graduate programme, Webster was named the 2022 Parkinson's Association of Alabama Predoctoral Scholar and received a fellowship to fund her tuition, stipend, and travel to scientific meetings to present her research.

During her final year of undergrad, her grandmother, "who was pivotal in my growth in more ways than one," passed away. She said that was her first encounter with death in her close family, and it was difficult to go through while studying and focusing on her next steps.

Living in the US, she added, exposed her to many racial and discriminatory issues she never experienced growing up in Kingston with her mother, grandmother, and older sister.

"How I overcame these? I'm not 100 per cent sure that I have. But I believe that with the historical grounding as a Jamaican, knowing myself and my values, and, of course, with the help of FaceTime chats, a solid group of like-minded friends, and a very up-to-date dancehall playlist, I have been able to see my way through," she told the Sunday Observer.

"I was always a good student, enjoyed school, and had great relationships with my teachers. But it was just recently that I realised I belong in this space."

Webster's academic journey started at Emmanuel Christian Academy and then she went on to St Andrew High School for Girls.

Graciously, she said her mother always emphasised the importance of education and social activism, so in third form she and five of her friends founded Rise to Education, a non-profit that helps improve the educational outcomes for students from marginalised communities.

They have worked in Parade Gardens, Brown's Town, and Fletcher's Land. This year, they are funding an extra lessons programme at Elliston Primary School for students taking Primary Exit Profile (PEP) exams.

Moreover, as a neuroscientist, there have been eye-opening experiences that have altered Webster's outlook on life.

"There have been two significant takeaways. One is that if you love doing something but are still determining how you will implement that into a passionate career, many opportunities open up if you simply start. Two is that you are where you are for a reason. Imposter syndrome, a general feeling of inadequacy in a given position, despite consistent and evident success is real and has often made me feel like I don't belong," she told the Sunday Observer.

"It has been helpful to look back at my journey knowing that every opportunity was perfectly aligned because of the work I put in during high school and college, even if I thought I wasn't necessarily at the top of my class."

To get to where she is at presently, Webster had to become proficient in many scientific techniques, while courses and levels of expectation have increased in intensity and complexity.

"At the same time, I have been blessed with academics and mentors who value a work-life balance, allowing me to take well-needed breaks to fly home or visit other family here. My village, family, and friends in Jamaica and here in the States keep me motivated in the lowest moments. It makes me feel like I can see it through and do even more, because they believe in me and my potential."

Webster told the Sunday Observer that, going forward, she is interested in translational research, which is research aimed at translating basic scientific findings into results that directly benefit humans.

Currently, her project has revealed results linking inflammation and protein pathology in the brain, which are considered significant drivers of neuronal death. The death of these crucial cells in the brain leads to the physical impairments that are characteristic of these diseases, including memory loss, other cognitive impairments, and motor deficits.

"I would like to work closely with physicians and patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's to find more targeted therapeutics that can have real and long-lasting effects on the quality of life for persons suffering from these brain diseases. Whether that's through working for biotechnology companies or staying in academia and opening my own lab, I'm still determining," she related.

She is also passionate about mentoring. Throughout her journey, she added, she has been blessed with "fantastic guidance from mentors" who are leaders in neuroscience.

"I owe a lot of who and where I am today to teachers, professors, and well-wishers who went the extra mile for me. I want to encourage Jamaican students who are also interested in science careers to achieve their goals by thinking and talking about science more broadly than just traditional careers. It is important that our up-and-coming generations think more imaginatively and expansively about science, and that we disrupt the notion that in order to make an impact one only has to pursue a medical route," she said.

Jhodi Webster, neuroscience PhD candidate in graduate biomedical sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Jhodi Webster presenting her research on T cells in Parkinson's disease at the 2023 Neuroimmune Communication in Health and Disease Gordon Research Conference in Ventura Beach, California.
Romardo Lyons

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