Senegal Alfred Mabry sites in the Cornell MRI Facility.
Juan Vazquez-Leddon
In Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, College of Human Ecology, Psychology

For Senegal Alfred Mabry, his research on Parkinson’s disease is not just science — it’s a chance to help communities that are traditionally overlooked.

Mabry is a doctoral student in neuroscience working to understand how psychosocial risk factors like anxiety and racial bias affect the pathogenesis and comorbidity of Parkinson’s disease and cardiovascular disease. He is a recipient of this year’s Rising Black Scientist Award, a program created by Cell Press in 2020 to support talented Black scientists starting out in the life or medical sciences.

“Science is my instrument for telling the stories of the vulnerable and forgotten,” Mabry wrote in the opening line of his winning essay, titled “Enough with ‘The Shakes’: Fighting Parkinson’s as a Black Researcher and a Community Organizer.” As part of the award, it was published in the February issue of Cell. Mabry also received funding to support his research and a travel grant for professional development.

In the essay, Mabry reflects on his path to Cornell, beginning with his experience as a high school student in the Bronx writing about inspiring educators for the Amsterdam News, the oldest African American newspaper in New York. His interest in public policy and education then brought him to Binghamton University, where he studied political science and completed a Master of Public Administration in 2020.

During that time, he worked as assistant to the chancellor of the New York State Education Department, helping to improve outcomes for boys and young men of color. He also began serving on the advisory council of the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. It was while working with an education policy think tank that Mabry made a move that changed the trajectory of his career.

“I was working with former and current governors during the pandemic to figure out how do we redesign education?” Mabry said. “In talking with those folks, the evidence that they were most excited to engage with, the things they wanted to learn about was how the brain is involved in learning, social relationships, and health. So I thought, if I’m going to be impactful in this space, I need to develop expertise in the brain to make those ideas accessible and actionable for communities.”

That led Mabry to Cornell, where he is the University's first Black male doctoral student studying human neuroscience. He works in the Affect and Cognition Lab, led by Adam Anderson and Eve DeRosa.

“Adam [Anderson] and Eve [DeRosa] took a shot on a kid,” Mabry said. Despite not studying neuroscience in his undergraduate or graduate degree, “they said, ‘he has talent, he knows how to solve problems, he has interesting questions, let’s bring him on.’”

Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disorder in the United States. It drew Mabry’s attention after he noticed a research study participant exhibit a telltale symptom. 

“I met this person, a Black woman, a grandmother, who was loving, funny, and attentive,” Mabry said. “She had a resting tremor in her right hand, a cardinal symptom for Parkinson’s disease.”

Mabry gave her cognitive assessment tests, which she failed.

“Every single one of them,” Mabry said. “She just struggled, and it didn’t match the resilient person that I knew was in front of me who was trying to battle, understand, and fight for her cognitive health.”

Mabry is also part of the Community Neuroscience Initiative (CNI), directed by Marlen Gonzalez. Part of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, CNI makes neuroscience accessible, translational, and inclusive by sharing knowledge with communities, focusing on educators and elementary school students. 

“[Gonzalez] has been a huge part of me being able to do community-based work while completing a neuroscience Ph.D., and that can’t be repeated anywhere else,” Mabry said. “Nobody is doing what we’re trying to do — directly translate and democratize neuroscience for communities by working with them.”

Working with communities to create meaningful change and progress is a thread woven into Mabry’s life and career. Along with his outreach work with CNI, Mabry launched a course, “Science as the Greatest Good,” that demonstrates how students can translate science to address issues that affect marginalized communities. He also serves as vice president of the Black Graduate Professional Student Association and continues his work with My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, where he is supporting national policy change for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students. 

He continues his Parkinson’s disease research with an eye on finding early markers that can help people determine if they’ll be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease or another neurodegenerative disorder later in life. 

“I want to be able to answer the interesting research questions working hand-in-hand, face-to-face with people fighting the disease,” Mabry said. “I want to have a shared vision with people living with Parkinson’s around the science I do.”