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VUMC’s Aspirnaut program celebrates 15th anniversary, and NBC News returned to highlight its students

A link to the video story and an inside look at the taping and some of this year's participants

by August 3, 2022

Neve Redhair, a sophomore at Stanford University from Page, Arizona, is interviewed by an NBC News crew at VUMC in July. The story about VUMC’s Aspirnaut program was broadcast on “NBC Nightly News” Aug. 2.

Photos by Erin O. Smith

Last month, the Aspirnaut STEM pipeline for diversity and wellness at Vanderbilt University Medical Center celebrated its 15th anniversary with a day-long scientific symposium, followed by a feature on the program broadcast Aug. 2 on the NBC Nightly News.

The pipeline is designed primarily for under-resourced and under-represented rural high school and undergraduate students.

Dressed in white lab coats, 20 participants in this summer’s high school program delivered formal oral presentations of research ranging from the potential of a mitochondrial enzyme to limit the spread of cancer to the use of photoactivatable probes to study the COVID-19 virus in the body.

Sixteen were rising juniors and seniors at high schools from as far away as Deer Island, Maine, and Hector, Arkansas. They also included recent high school graduates who have been admitted to Columbia University and North Carolina’s Davidson College, and a rising sophomore at Stanford University.

That is par for the course for the Aspirnaut pipeline, co-founded in 2007 by Julie Hudson, MD, MA, her husband, Billy Hudson, PhD, his brother, Johnny Hudson, and his sister, Ann Kincl.

Funded largely through donations, 162 high school research interns from 25 states have participated as summer research interns to date. Of these, 63 have graduated from college, 21 are pursuing careers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, or math), 12 have earned master’s degrees, and 12 are working on their MD or PhD degrees—or both.

“We take them on a guided time-travel journey, about seven years into the future, and show them what’s possible,” said Billy Hudson, the Elliott V. Newman Professor of Medicine at VUMC, and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Matrix Biology.

Training in and entering well-paying STEM careers can help reverse income inequality and lack of mobility experienced by certain racial and ethnic groups and those of low socioeconomic status. Aspirnaut is showing one way to achieve that goal.

“Aspirnaut provides students with the tools and empowerment to effect positive change in themselves, their families, and communities for generations to come,” said Aspirnaut Executive Director Julie Hudson, Vice President for Medical Center Relations at VUMC.

The students work full time in a laboratory on a discovery science project for six weeks with the goal of generating original data. Over the past 14 summers, 45 high school students have been listed as co-authors on papers published by scientific journals, several of which have advanced the field of knowledge in kidney disease and diabetes.

They also are tutored in professional skills including scientific communication, developing long-term relationships with mentors, and wellness training, skills that will serve them well when they enter their STEM professions.

To view the NBC News feature, go to

Neve Redhair prepares protein samples for an electrophoresis method that separates proteins according to their mass.

A vortex mixer is used to prepare a protein sample for gel electrophoresis, a method of separating proteins, DNA, and RNA according to their molecular size.

Twins Julianna and Michael Gallup from Sevierville, Tennessee, are interviewed by the NBC News crew.

Rocio Rosa, a senior at Eastern Alamance High School in Mebane, North Carolina, pours out a solution under the watchful eye of Mohamed Rafi, MS, Research Assistant III in the Division of Nephrology.

Rocio Rosa prepares a protein gel used during gel electrophoresis to separate proteins, RNA and DNA according to their molecular size.

Colton Miller, a high school senior from Wynne, Arkansas, uses a centrifuge to separate the DNA-containing portion of a sample.

Julianna Gallup, Olivia Servidio, and Elizabeth Leaf work on their scientific presentations. Juliana is a high school junior from Sevierville, Tennessee, and Olivia and Elizabeth are high school seniors from Maine who also participate in a biomedical research support program and take college courses during the school year.

Aspirnaut Program interns from the Hudson lab pose for a photo while NBC was on-site working on a story about the Aspirnaut Program. From left, Olivia Servidio, a high school senior from Lewiston, Maine; Rocio Rosa, a high school senior from Mebane, North Carolina; Aalia Holt, a high school senior from Hector, Arkansas; Billy Hudson, PhD; Monica Moran, one of the original Aspirnauts, now a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; Jaedan Sockbeson, a freshman at Columbia University from Indian Mound, Maine; Elizabeth Leaf, a high school senior from Deer Isle, Maine; and twins Michael and Juliana Gallup, from Sevierville, Tennessee. Michael is a high school junior, and his sister is a senior.

Eighteen high school students and 16 college undergraduates participated in the Aspirnaut program this summer. Program co-founders Billy Hudson, PhD, and Julie Hudson, MD, MA, are at far left and right. Fourth from right, back row, Aspirnaut alumna Lauren Taylor, from Grapevine, Arkansas, who participated in the inaugural Aspirnaut program 15 years ago–a broadband internet-equipped school bus the Hudsons dubbed their “mobile one-room schoolhouse,” which enabled students to log into science and math lessons during their long bus rides to and from school.

This year’s Aspirnaut faculty: (L-R) Tetyana Pedchenko, PhD, Assistant Scientific Director/Science Educator of the Aspirnaut program, and Research Assistant Professor of Medicine; Sergei Boudko, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine; Elena Pokidysheva, PhD, Associate Scientific Director of the Aspirnaut program, and Research Assistant Professor of Medicine; Rachel Baugh, MS, Aspirnaut Associate Director and Wellness Director; Meagan Postema, Ph.D., Aspirnaut Program Manager; Mohamed Rafi, MS, Research Assistant III, Division of Nephrology; Julie Hudson, MD, MA, Aspirnaut Co-Founder and Executive Director; Billy Hudson, PhD, Aspirnaut Co-Founder and Scientific Director.

television, Movies/TV, Billy Hudson, Julie Hudson, Aspirnaut