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Q&A with Jack Nzerhumana

By Olaoluwapo Onitiri

Everyone has a different journey in life.

The journey may not always be smooth, but it is what shapes a person into who they are. Bisimwa "Jack" Nzerhumana, a December 2021 graduate who majored in neuroscience and psychology at UK, is one whose complicated journey has made him who he is today. At the graduation ceremony, he delivered one of the student addresses. We sat down with Jack to discuss his journey from his homeland (Congo) to Lexington, Kentucky, his passion for neuroscience and psychology, and his impact on the community.

Q: Could you tell us about your journey from your homeland all the way to the United States?

I am originally from Congo. However, at the time in Congo, there was a lot of war and fighting with the neighboring country going on. I remember seeing everyone running, hearing bullets and seeing people being killed. That led to my family and I migrating to Kenya as a refugee when I was around 5 years old. We lived in Kakuma refugee camp before moving to Nairobi, Kenya, a couple years later. The students were not welcoming over there because I was not from Kenya, especially when I was a prefect. Then, in 2012, after getting all of our documents sorted, the UN helped us to migrate over to Lexington, Kentucky, where I was able to complete eighth grade through high school and then attend college.

Q: What made you choose the University of Kentucky as the place to further your education?

I chose UK specifically because during my junior year in high school I attended a program for a month that was sponsored by the UK College of Medicine. I was able to interact with professionals, doctors and researchers. Also, just seeing the environment and new facilities like the Don & Cathy Jacobs Science Building and the new Gatton Student Center really attracted me to come to UK.

Q: How has your experience at UK been?

Overall as a first-generation student receiving two degrees, I believe I have had the best time here, especially meeting different people with different walks of life. UK has really prepared me on learning how to overcome some of my hardships and being able to work in the community by volunteering with urban impact. They also want you to succeed here. Before I came to the University, I did not know any chemistry or biology. However, I had resources like the Chemistry Learning Center, the Study and professors to help push me over my limit. The College of Arts & Sciences has also provided resources to help me succeed. Whenever I had questions, professors had their office hours open for me to come and just express myself and really be able to understand different concepts in a different manner.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue a career in neuroscience?

Something about neuroscience that really interested me is that the brain is very complex and there are a lot of things we don’t understand about the brain. I suffered a traumatic brain injury after a group of students hit the back of my head in Kenya, and that really pushed me into studying neuroscience. The fact that I was able to get my eyesight back and all other functions of my body back after a traumatic brain injury really sparked my interest in neuroscience. I could see different ways to help people who suffer traumatic brain injuries.

Q: Could you talk about your research experience, including working with Wild Health during the pandemic?

As an undergraduate, I was able to do research specifically in traumatic brain injury, working in Dr. Patrick Sullivan’s lab. My focus was to see the mitochondria that gets a dysfunction and to see if there’s a therapeutic drug that can improve the mitochondria after it’s been damaged. I'm looking to see if it can get recycled and re-created through biogenesis to get new mitochondria, so that the cell can function.

Also, during the pandemic, and even right now, I am working with Wild Health, a Lexington-based company currently conducting COVID-19 testing for UK, to help provide the best help to Kentuckians during this tumultuous time. You need people who can really help with COVID testing and provide the best care when it comes to giving vaccines. I enjoy working with Wild Health because it’s something I’m giving back to my community and it’s a beautiful way to give back. 

Q: What are your long-term goals?

After graduation, first I’ll be working with the residency program here at the Pediatrics Clinic at UK, just to get  exposure to different ways medicine is being provided. Another long-term goal that I have is to become a gastroenterologist or a neurologist, depending on what really interests me when I get into medical school. My ultimate goal is definitely becoming a physician. I will not only serve Kentucky but go outside different places where they don't have doctors that can really help give medical care attention. I also want to provide the best care to everybody and to also be a motivation to a lot of refugee students who are thinking of going to a university to get a higher education, because sometimes it can be daunting.&