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Thomas Burnett, 2020 MLK Jr. Community Service Award Recipient

Thomas Burnett, 2020 MLK Jr. Community Service Award Recipient

Neuroscience graduate student makes science more accessible to the disadvantaged

Thomas Burnett chose to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine not only to conduct cutting-edge research at an internationally ranked institution, but also to serve the Baltimore community.

While his scientific work investigates how the brain processes complex computational systems, his community service lends a human face to the field, and focuses on advocating for diversity, equity and inclusiveness in science and on making it more understandable for underrepresented minority and LGBTQ communities. “To me, science is a tool to solve society’s problems, so science needs to be accessible and equitable. People of color have been denied a seat at the table for so long and this leads to unseen problems,” says the third-year graduate student.

Burnett’s work with Baltimore Underground Science Space is one example of this outreach. He wrote and edited grants to fund a group of science students who competed as a team in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. The students’ project, which won the gold medal, focused on preserving biodiversity in Earth’s oceans “Just knowing that kids were able to have this opportunity at all was gratifying,” he says.

Burnett volunteers with Project Bridge, an initiative founded by two fellow neuroscience students to inspire careers in science, and organized its Baltimore Brainfest, a science festival that gives students in grades K–8 an opportunity to learn from hands-on, interactive neuroscience exhibits. In addition, he will oversee Maryland DNA Day, an event to introduce K–12 students to the field of genetics.

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