An Emory student’s incredible journey from Ethiopia to the NIH

Emory University junior Hasset Nurelegne poses for a photograph in her workspace at the O. Wayne Rollins Research Center on the Emory campus Tuesday, Mar 12, 2023.  (Steve Schaefer/

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Emory University junior Hasset Nurelegne poses for a photograph in her workspace at the O. Wayne Rollins Research Center on the Emory campus Tuesday, Mar 12, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/

When 9-year-old Hasset Nurelegne moved from Ethiopia to join her parents in the U.S., her mother would come home from her housekeeping job at the National Institutes of Health recounting in awe the scientific work she saw happening there.

She told her daughter about research into diseases ranging from cancer and diabetes to Ebola. At first, Nurelegne wasn’t very interested. She was far more enthusiastic about studying other subjects, including government.

But everything changed when she began taking advanced high school classes in biology and psychology. That’s when she said says “everything clicked,” sparking a passion for neuroscience. Now, the Emory University student is well on her way to her own job at NIH – as a researcher herself.

She has been awarded a prestigious NIH undergraduate scholarship, just one of 12 recipients of a highly competitive award.

“When I was young, my parents were always like, oh the good professions are in science and like being a doctor and I just didn’t want to do what they wanted me to do,” she says with a laugh on a recent afternoon at a research lab at Emory University.

At Emory University, Nurelegne, known for her cheerful disposition, is pursuing a double major in neuroscience and behavioral biology along with a degree in English. She has poured herself into scientific research. The NIH scholarship she won comes with up to $20,000 in annual tuition and as well as summer internships at NIH laboratories. After graduation, Nurelegne will work full-time in NIH labs for two years. She then plans to pursue a medical degree and a Ph.D. likely in neuroscience or psychiatry.

Only 2% of jobs in the “STEM” fields of science, technology, engineering and math are held by Black women nationwide, according to The Center for American Progress.

Emory University junior Hasset Nurelegne talks with reporters on the Emory campus Tuesday, Mar 12, 2023. (Steve Schaefer/

Credit: Steve Schaefer

icon to expand image

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“My parents are the reason education is so important to me,” Nurelegne said. “They’ve engrained that into me since I was young. I mean the reason they immigrated was for better opportunities for their children, for me and my siblings and to have the best education possible. And when my mom was at the NIH, she talked about education being the path to do all of the cool things they are doing there.”

As a high school freshman, Nurelegne joined Emory’s Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), an NIH-funded research and mentoring program to help students underrepresented in the sciences prepare for top-flight doctoral biomedical and behavioral science programs. Most students take the class as juniors or seniors.

“But Hasset was one of those super-motivated students that managed to find out about this during her freshman year,” said Anita H. Corbett, a researcher and biology professor at Emory University, who runs the IMSD Program.

Nurelegne then joined Corbett’s lab where they’re using a new, revolutionary yeast model system to better understand cancer-causing mutations including mutations causing glioblastoma (GBM), a fast-growing and aggressive brain tumor. The research is designed to better understand why these mutations cause cancer and discover potential treatments.

The research lab is only a few years old, and is part of a collaborative project with Jennifer Spangle, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at the Emory School of Medicine.

“I think she’s really contributed to validating the use of this system for these potential applications,” said Corbett. “So being able to validate it and demonstrate that it’s really telling us something that is useful and important that could be applied to cancer is critically important.”

Hasset celebrating her 2020 high school graduation with her parents, her mom Chaltu Woldemariam and her dad, Temesgen Tsegaye.

Credit: custom

icon to expand image

Credit: custom

She also serves on the youth advisory board for the Ethiopian/Eritrean Youth Exploring Resilience and Awareness (Weyera) research study at the Rollins School of Public Health which is aimed at developing a pilot program for mental health support.

“She goes beyond the basic participation of the youth advisory board members,” said Tsedenia Tewodros, senior public health program associate at Emory who works on the Weyera study and program. “She works with us to analyze our past qualitative research which means she is looking through long interviews and focus group discussions and summarizing based on certain themes.”

Tewodros said in the Ethiopian and Eritrean communities the topic of mental illness is often shrouded in taboo and stigma. She said Nurelegne has shown a passion for raising awareness about mental health challenges and also working to develop pilot programs to provide support.

A family beach trip. Left to right: Hasset Nurelegne, Wudase Nurelegne (sister), Chaltu Woldemariam (mom), Kiber Nurelegne (brother), Temesgen Tsegaye (dad), Meba Nurelegne (brother in front of dad) and Alemnesh Gifar (grandmother)

Credit: custo

icon to expand image

Credit: custo

“When she comes to our meetings and events, there’s this joy and lightness she brings it which just makes her a joy to work with, and it’s contagious,” said Tewodros.

Nurelegne said she wants to be a physician-scientist but wants to keep an open mind and continue to explore different areas of research before deciding her ultimate focus.

A typical day for Nurelegne begins with going to the gym and getting coffee before going to class, always making a point to be at class on time. Between classes, she studies and might also work at the lab on campus. She gets home around 6 p.m. Then, it’s homework, talking to friends and family, and sometimes watching a show with friends. They recently watched Outer Banks. She and her friends also enjoy going out to restaurants and her favorites include Bahel Ethiopian Restaurant in Atlanta.

“I give her credit for being so driven and identifying opportunities,” said Corbett. “She really wants to combine science and clinical work. She basically wants to be a better doctor and be at the cutting edge of applying medical care, but also be really aware of the different populations and disparities in health care.”