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NGSD Leaders

(Sarah 'Sadie' Bennison) Drexel Neuroscience Graduate Students for Diversity

Sarah 'Sadie' Bennison (NGSD President, Co-Founder)

Following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and seeing the administration's response, we realized that it would be up to the students to make change in our department. NGSD was created to hold our department accountable for changes demanded by the student body and provide much needed racial education for our peers and faculty members. As a white senior graduate student with a good relationship with many faculty members, I realized that I had the privilege necessary to get a group like this off the ground and the administration on our side. Through NGSD we have already made concrete changes and had difficult but necessary discussions. I am consistently blown away by the amazing work of fellow NGSD leaders and would not have been able to start this organization without them!

I am a fourth-year PhD student studying developmental neuroscience. My dissertation work focuses on how newborn neurons take the appropriate shapes to form functional cortical connectivity, and the neurodevelopmental disorders that occur when this process goes awry! Most of my free time is dedicated to NGSD, but I also love to cook, hike, play with my dog and take care of my ever-growing plant collection.

(Taylor McCorkle) Drexel Neuroscience Graduate Students for Diversity

Taylor McCorkle (NGSD Vice President, Co-Founder)

My name is Taylor McCorkle and I am the vice president and co-founder of NGSD. This group is extremely special to me as the senseless murders of countless Black individuals in this country hits too close to home. I want to do my part in demanding justice and uplifting the Black community. Through this group, we are able to provide accessibility to resources that are otherwise not provided in marginalized communities. We will bring awareness and create opportunity in STEM fields and hopefully inspire the future of BIPOC youth. For me, this group is the definition of "be the change you want to see in the world."

In terms of education and research, I am a third-year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience program at Drexel University College of Medicine. I am originally from Pittsburgh but moved to Philadelphia for college, where I attended the University of Pennsylvania and received my BA in biology with a minor in psychology in 2018. That fall, I began graduate school in the Neuroscience master's program here at Drexel and received that degree in May of 2020, prior to transitioning into the PhD program here. During my time in graduate school thus far, I have worked in the lab of Dr. Ramesh Raghupathi studying sex differences in behavioral outcome following repetitive mild traumatic brain injury in adolescent rats. I am furthering this research by investigating novel mechanisms through which hippocampal-dependent memory impairments and depression develop post-injury. Particularly, I am interested in how corticotrophin releasing factor modulates acetylcholine to produce these deficits.

(Micaela O'Reilly) Drexel Neuroscience Graduate Students for Diversity

Micaela O'Reilly (NGSD PR & Communications Director, Co-Founder)

Hi! My name is Micaela O'Reilly and I am the PR and communications director and co-founder of NGSD. I am also a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience program in Drexel University College of Medicine's Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy. By day (and sometimes night), I study the role of the neuroimmune system in contributing to autonomic dysfunction and plasticity following spinal cord injury. In addition to my thesis work, I am also a passionate advocate for antiracism in STEM and society as a whole. As countless Black lives have been lost and communities continue to be terrorized and marginalized, now is the time to stand up and actively work to enact meaningful change in society—in whichever way we can. My fellow founders and I sought to form a group that would bring awareness, education and career opportunities in STEM to underrepresented and marginalized communities in the local Philadelphia area. However, it is my hope that NGSD will remain a permanent fixture at Drexel and in the community, inspiring others to explore careers in STEM and creating an accepting and socially conscious environment for students to flourish. Hopefully, after reading this, you too will find a way that you can "pay it forward" and continue this mission.

(Nancy Mack) Drexel Neuroscience Graduate Students for Diversity

Nancy Mack (NGSD Treasurer, Co-Founder)

I am a PhD candidate in the laboratory of Dr. Wen-Jun Gao. Here, I study how the prefrontal cortical GABAergic interneurons mediate connections between the prefrontal cortex and the thalamus to regulate social and emotional behaviors. I am passionate about mental health research, science communication and community participation. I believe that our ability to answer the toughest and most important questions in neuroscience requires participation from a diverse pool of researchers who hold unique experiences and perspectives. Higher education, like many other institutions in our country, has historically been exclusive to white males. As scientists and participants in academia, we are responsible making sure we change this status quo. As the treasurer of NGSD, I am looking forward to ensuring our group has appropriate funds to make the greatest impact in our local community and beyond.

(Cassandra Alexandropoulos) Drexel Neuroscience Graduate Students for Diversity

Cassandra Alexandropoulos (Former NGSD Secretary, Co-Founder)

Hi! My name is Cassandra Alexandropoulos, and I am one of the founding members of NGSD. I was born and raised in Athens, Greece, and came to the United States to do my master's in neuroscience in 2017. After I finished my master's, I worked as a research assistant in a neuro-engineering lab. Currently, I am transitioning from a career in academia to a new position in industry in the Infectious Diseases Department of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. I am very excited that prior to leaving Drexel University, I had the opportunity to be a founding member of NGSD and assume the leadership role of secretary. I truly believe NGSD will enact real, meaningful change at Drexel University, and I am honored to have been a part of that while at Drexel. I am excited to continue being involved in NGSD, even in a limited capacity, when I transition to my new position.

(Candace Rizzi-Wise) Drexel Neuroscience Graduate Students for Diversity

Candace Rizzi-Wise (NGSD Secretary, Co-Founder)

Hi! My name is Candace and I'm a PhD candidate in the Neuroscience program at Drexel. The thing that fascinated me about neuroscience and what I currently study are neural circuits — specifically those that relate to memory and emotion. Currently, I am researching the role of hippocampal circuits to subcortical regions and how these regulate the expression of fear memory. In addition to my research at Drexel, I helped found NGSD because, as I am one of the few minorities currently in the program, it is important to me to increase representation of Black students in neuroscience. I hope that the efforts of our group raise awareness and provide an outlet for Black and other underrepresented students to find passion and seek higher education opportunities in all areas of science.

(Ashley Opalka) Drexel Neuroscience Graduate Students for Diversity

Ashley Opalka (NGSD Outreach Chair, Co-Founder)

Hi everyone, I am Ashley Opalka, a second-year PhD student in neuroscience and the outreach chair of NGSD. When our NGSD team started to develop the group, I thought that one way to increase BIPOC representation in neuroscience/STEM was to show local young students that anyone can identify as and become a scientist, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, or whether you personally know a scientist. By having graduate students from various backgrounds provide information sessions, educational outreach and resources, we hope that young students can relate to our volunteers, while gaining an understanding of what research is and how to become a research scientist. We also hope to create an open environment for mentorship, as navigating higher education can be intimidating, so everyone feels welcome [and excited!] in this collaborative field.

(Kayla Socarrás) Drexel Neuroscience Graduate Students for Diversity

Kayla Socarrás (NGSD Web Content Designer, Co-Founder)

Hello! I'm Kayla, the web content designer for NGSD and a PhD candidate in microbiology and immunology at the College of Medicine. I joined the group not long after the senseless and cruel murders George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this summer. I am passionate about social justice and the treatment of disadvantaged groups. While there are numerous ways to help, I believe that communication is key. In an age in which there is an abundance of information and misinformation, I wanted to use my abilities in graphic design to give others a platform and connect them to the resources they need.

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