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Uniformed Services University Neuroscientist Inspired by Chance to Help Others

Dr. Kimberly Byrnes reaching for lab equipment on a shelf.

By Ian Neligh


Growing up, Dr. Kimberly Byrnes thought she would be a teacher or a doctor. She ended up becoming a scientist who teaches others how to become doctors.

“I’m an outlier, a one-off,” Byrnes says. Her parents were both factory workers, and she was the first one in her family to go to college and later graduate school.

“Nobody in my family could figure out why I went to graduate school — they were like ‘you went to college, you’re done,’” Byrnes jokes.

But for Byrnes, that was just the beginning.

Byrnes ended up following a road that led her to become a professor of Anatomy, Physiology, and Genetics. Byrnes is also the director of the graduate program in Neuroscience at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). 

Recently, she was elected to become the future president of the prestigious National Neurotrauma Society whose mission includes speeding up research, promoting excellence, and ultimately improving treatments for patients.

Dr. Kimberly Byrnes
Dr. Kimberly Byrnes, the director of the graduate program in neuroscience at USU, was recently elected to become the next president of the National
Neurotrauma society. (Photo credit: Ian Neligh)

“I told my parents that I was elected president of the society and they were like ‘oh great! Does that mean you’re going to get paid?’ No, it’s all-volunteer. I do all of this just for fun,” Byrnes says.

Byrnes grew up in Pittsburgh Pa., and attended the University of Pittsburgh to major in neuroscience. 

“I didn’t know any scientists, I didn’t know that was a career option — until I got to the University of Pittsburgh,” Byrnes says.

It was while taking pre-med that Byrnes heard the school’s intro to neuroscience class was the hardest class that someone could take. With that reputation, she decided she had to enroll in it.

“I took it and fell absolutely head over heels in love with the science, with everything,” Byrnes says.

After that, she switched her major to neuroscience and became a scientist.

“And I’ve loved it ever since,” Byrnes says. “The idea of how the brain works, how it recovers from injury, and how we can make things better for people with brain and spinal cord injuries is amazing to me.”

Byrnes went to USU for graduate school in pursuit of her Ph.D. after seeing a poster advertising the university. She then joined a lab working on spinal cord injury, and after graduating, worked as a postdoctoral researcher at Georgetown University in a spinal cord and brain injury lab. After working in a faculty position as a research assistant professor, she applied for and was hired for a position at USU, returning to campus in 2009.

“Everything about this job is awesome,” Byrnes says. “I love interacting with the students, I love trying to inspire them to find something that they can be passionate about.”

She adds she enjoys being able to do something new every day while conducting experiments, doing science, and looking for new questions to find answers to. Currently, she is working on projects that include the development of new therapeutics to treat brain or spinal cord injury.

“I really like the idea that I could potentially help get therapy into the clinics that would help people,” Byrnes says.

Dr. Kimberly Byrnes surrounded by lab equipment
Dr. Kimberly Byrnes is currently working on projects that include the development of new therapeutics to treat brain or spinal cord injury.
(Photo credit: Ian Neligh)

She explains one therapy she’s helping to work on includes using insulin with an intranasal delivery system to improve brain and spinal cord injury. 

“We published a paper a few years ago showing that it improved outcomes after moderate brain injury. A lot of the work we’ve been doing lately shows that it reduces anxiety after mild injury and it improves motor function after spinal cord injury,” Byrnes says. “And we’re trying, right now, to put in proposals to get funding to move that toward clinical trials.”

According to Byrnes, currently, there is no clinically approved treatment which dramatically improves anything for patients with brain or spinal cord injury. 

“The idea that I could help make that difference is what makes me get up and come in every day,” Byrnes says.

Byrnes says the thing that makes USU so unique is the school’s mission of caring for service members. Everyone is on the same page.

“We’re all working together,” Byrnes says. “It is really easy to get students who have this combined mission, and it is really easy to work alongside colleagues — we’re all working toward the same goal.”

She says the university provides an extremely collaborative environment for scientists versus strictly a competitive one.

“And I think it pushes the research for all of us working toward the same goal of figuring things out,” Byrnes says. “And getting treatments out that help our service members.”