Benyam Kinde is a 2011 Gilliam Fellow.

Benyam Kinde

Benyam Kinde likes solving problems. He learned early in life that he could figure out most everything with ingenuity and hard work, thanks to the examples set by his parents, a math teacher and a large-animal veterinarian.

The riddles that attract scientists and doctors began to intrigue Kinde in grade school, kindled by a school assignment to write about a parent’s job. As part of the assignment, he watched with fascination—instead of revulsion—as his father performed necropsies on large animals, including horses and cows.

“His line of work was like my favorite TV show, CSI,” says Kinde, now 22. “I liked the whole idea of an investigation. The evidence is in front of you and it’s your responsibility to ask the fundamental questions, to look in the right places, to order the appropriate tests.” He began to understand that research, like forensics, involved solving mysteries.

Meanwhile, he came to appreciate the power of mathematics and creative problem solving after spending some of his earliest summers sitting at the back of his mother’s summer school calculus class. During breaks, some students would try to explain what they were learning. “The more I was around math and science, the more it seemed like something I had to do—I couldn’t see myself doing anything else,” he remembers.

Kinde’s parents provided inspiration, encouragement, and deep connections to Ethiopia, where both were born. “My father grew up in a family of seven. They didn’t have much food, and only a little house to call home,” Kinde says, noting that he returns there every few years. “It allows me to see I’m not here just by accident but through my parents’ very intentional hard work. When I see my relatives obtaining an education—with some becoming teachers so that they can educate others—I understand that every opportunity to learn and teach something new is precious and should not be taken for granted.”

That same drive inspired Kinde to delve into research as quickly as possible. Like his older brother, he enrolled in the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and was accepted as an HHMI Scholar. Through the program, which provides opportunities for minority students pursuing studies in science or engineering, he began working in the UMBC lab of HHMI investigator Michael Summers as a second-semester freshman in January 2007. And, like his older brother, he found in Summers a caring, thoughtful mentor.

For two and a half years, Kinde worked with colleagues in the Summers lab to develop a nuclear magnetic resonance imaging protocol that could be used to determine the structure of large RNA molecules at high resolution. The research was fruitful, resulting in a publication, but Kinde also experienced the satisfactions of being mentored and mentoring others, including four high school students who interned in the lab (three of these students later enrolled at UMBC as HHMI Scholars). “I feel like I’ve had many opportunities to succeed as a result of excellent mentors and role models, and just as those opportunities have been given to me to help me prepare for future careers in academia, I can help others as well,” he says.

Kinde spends his extracurricular time giving back. For example, he traveled with other UMBC students to rural Kentucky, where they helped rebuild a house that had been burned down by arsonists. “I came to realize that the act of community service did more than just give a sense of accomplishment,” Kinde says. “Going with an exceptionally diverse group of students from Baltimore and working with a predominantly Caucasian community in Kentucky underscored the importance and impact of extending a helping hand beyond one's own backyard.”

By May 2009, Kinde was eager to explore new scientific landscapes and learn new laboratory techniques. “I chose projects just because they were interesting, not because I thought it was ultimately what I wanted to study,” he says. “I tried to treat undergraduate research like a buffet, picking up as many different skills as I could.”

Kinde spent a summer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) working in the laboratory of HHMI investigator Angelika Amon as part of the Institute’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP). There, he studied the different stages of meiosis in yeast to help determine which stages were most influential in reversing age-related damage and extending lifespan. Back at UMBC for his senior year, Kinde found himself in the neurophysiology laboratory of Andrea Meredith, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he studied the tiny region of the brain called the superchiasmatic nucleus to understand the molecular mechanisms that regulate the mammalian circadian clock.

The UMBC valedictorian is now enrolled in the joint Harvard Medical School-MIT M.D./Ph.D. program. Turning his attention to neurological disorders, Kinde plans to do his Ph.D. research on the role that epigenetics—inherited chemical changes that govern which genes are expressed—plays in neurodevelopment. After that, he’s a little less clear, but envisions himself in an academic position that also allows him time in the clinic to see patients.

It’s a question he has plenty of time to solve.

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