Unique Scientist: Kendyll Burnell

Time to meet Kendyll Burnell (She/her)! Kendyll is a research technician at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA! She studies synaptic plasticity in the visual cortex and is currently applying to doctoral programs in neurosciences!

What kind of scientist are you?
I’m a research technician at MIT, studying synaptic plasticity in the visual cortex. I work in an imaging lab, where we are able to do live, in vivo, imaging on a synaptic level of the same neurons over development. The project I work on in particular looks at inhibitory synapses on pyramidal neurons, and how their plasticity changes over development. I’m currently applying to neuroscience PhD programs!

What made you want to become a scientist?
I’ve always been interested in the natural world, I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Maine and spent my days playing in the backyard, and dissecting owl pellets with my parents and sisters. However, I knew I wanted to really study science when my health started to be in flux in middle and high school. Many concussions, that refused to heal normally, made me realize just how much we don’t know about the brain. The summer after my freshman year of undergrad I had my first experience as an intern in a real research lab, and as I realized my love for scientific research. I love waking up in the middle of the night with a new question, and spending the day puzzling together what experiments could give me the answer to that question.

“I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Maine and spent my days playing in the backyard, and dissecting owl pellets with my parents and sisters.”

Kendyll Burnell

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
I am a scientist with an invisible disability. I have chronic migraines from several concussions in middle school and high school. And a condition called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), an autonomic nervous system condition where my blood pressure drops, my heart rate skyrockets to try to compensate for it (it doesn’t actually compensate for it), and I can pass out- without much warning. This leaves me with chronic fatigue, the inability to walk long distances or stand for too long, and pretty common fainting or woozy spells. I’m also in the middle of training a service dog to alert me to a blood pressure drop, pick up/ fetch things for me, and to help me out if I do pass out alone.

However, looking at me, I look totally ‘normal’ and healthy. This can lead to some awkward encounters when there are things I simply can’t do: walk up more than one flight of stairs, stand rather than sit at a lab bench for hours at a time, etc.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I love reading and cooking outside of work! My weekend self care is always finding a nice coffee shop and reading a fiction book for a couple of hours with a good latte. I also love going to the farmers market, getting lots of veggies and cooking for friends.

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
I wish I could change the prejudice surrounding physical and mental health in academia. Illness and disability is often seen as weakness in character or ability to do science- when as long I have the accommodations I need, I can do my job spectacularly. Instead, I’m afraid to tell my PI that I may need accommodations because she has made comments such as “can’t we do a better job weeding these people out in the application process?” when talking about those with mental or physical illness.

“He truly showed me that despite my struggles, with a little extra work and time, that I could succeed as much as my peers.”

Kendyll Burnell

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
A couple of people have really inspired and motivated me to become the scientist I am today. My high school AP chemistry, Mr. Luchesse, teacher not only got me excited about science, but also took extra time to help me not only with his class, but with my calculus class as well throughout the fluctuations of health and chronic pain. He truly showed me that despite my struggles, with a little extra work and time, that I could succeed as much as my peers.
The next person was the first PI I ever had a research internship with. Dr. Reddien, a professor at MIT, gave a shot to a nervous undergrad without any experience, and allowed me to realize that I love research. He not only encouraged me to ask questions, and formulate experiments, but talked to me about woolly mammoths and bird watching (both of which have nothing to do with his research). I would not have decided on graduate school and neuroscience research if it weren’t for those three months I spent in his lab.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
This week my post-doc is on vacation which means I’m in charge of our experiments by myself! So far I haven’t messed anything up!


#WomenInSTEM, #DisabledInSTEM

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