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Black History Month: Jamaica native draws inspiration from MLK

Graphic that reads Celebrating Black History Month with photo of Takese McKenzie.
Takese McKenzie (Graphic by UTHealth Houston)

Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of February, UTHealth Houston will highlight stories of students who share the vision and reflect on the people who influenced who they are today.

At a young age, Takese McKenzie was curious about the human brain. How exactly did it work? Why did it control all that we do? Understanding its limitless potential was fascinating for the young girl growing up in Jamaica.

With family support, McKenzie relentlessly pursued these questions. Her path has led her to learn the answers as a third-year neuroscience PhD candidate at MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Houston Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, where she’s a graduate research assistant in the lab of Jian Hu, PhD.

Given the devastating nature of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, McKenzie said she is drawn to helping develop new therapies that have the potential to slow the progression of these harmful diseases.

McKenzie learned about neurodegenerative diseases and how detrimental they could be earning her undergraduate degree at the University of Houston-Downtown. That knowledge helped her pursue a PhD in neuroscience and to further explore the importance of biomedical research.  

McKenzie has drawn inspiration from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most prominent leaders in the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968. King advanced civil rights for people of color in the United States by participating in and leading nonviolent protests for the right to vote, civil rights, desegregation, and labor rights.

Through Dr. King’s actions and words, McKenzie found the motivation to pursue her own dreams in the medical field.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been one of my greatest inspirations to strive for excellence in my goal of becoming a neuroscientist,” McKenzie said. “He believed in equity and a better way of life for everyone. Having earned his PhD at such a young age, Dr. King is known as the epitome of Black excellence.”

One of the most famous events of the civil rights movement took place on Aug. 28, 1963: the March on Washington. Organized by civil rights leaders which included Dr. King, more than 200,000 people of all races congregated in Washington, D.C. for the peaceful march with the main purpose of forcing civil rights legislation and establishing job equality. It was there that Dr. King delivered his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech, which galvanized the national civil rights movement and became a global slogan for equality and freedom.  

“As a first-generation student from the rural areas of Jamaica, Dr. King’s legacy motivates me that I can also do the same by defying my circumstances and striving to achieve what others haven’t,” she said. “One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King is, ‘If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run walk, if you can’t walk crawl, but by all means keep moving forward.’ Throughout my academic journey, this quote has served as a constant inspiration and reminder to be optimistic and use the resources at hand to the best of my ability to achieve my goals.”

With a wealth of knowledge and experience under her belt, McKenzie is determined to help others who share the same dream she once had growing up in Jamaica – a dream that is becoming a reality.

“It would be my greatest joy to give back to the community by mentoring budding neuroscientists, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to make exceptional scientific achievements,” McKenzie said. “I am really passionate about the field of neuroscience, there is so much left to uncover.”

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