Nick Donias '12: From Homeless High Schooler to Undergraduate Researcher
“In my junior year of high school my dad lost his job and we lost our house,” explains Nick Donias. In order to continue with his schooling, Nick began living out of his car. “I was very involved with a lot of things: band, student council, student body present, National Honor Society president; I made all-state track. But that one thing I kept secret from all my friends. At night, I’d find an abandoned parking lot and try to cuddle up in my clothes; I didn’t have any blankets but kept a lot of clothes in my trunk that I would pile on top of me. When the sun rose, there were moments when I wondered how I could bring myself to go to school another day. Then I would look at the Brown University brochure I kept on my dashboard and that gave me hope."
I think my growth has been exponential, from barely knowing anything at all, to being able to ask my own questions about the brain. — Nick Donias '12
The library was like a home for him, and he spent many days there reading books, learning how to write an essay, and figuring out how to apply to colleges. And the library was where he learned the fate of his Brown application: “I shouted really loudly—everyone turned and looked at me.”
Nick is now a junior. He has been working in the lab of Barry Connors, professor of medical science and chair of the neuroscience department, since the first semester of his sophomore year. “Barry Connors is the author of one of my textbooks, so initially I was a little intimidated,” confesses Nick. “However, I had a great first-year advisor who gave me the courage to have that first conversation.”
“He already had a strong interest in neuroscience and was looking to do some research,” says Connors. “He was persuasive enough and persistent enough that I decided to meet with him.”
Nick is participating in one of the bigger projects in Connors’ lab. “We’re interested in understanding basic mechanisms of the brain and certain parts of the cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that makes us human,” says Connors. “We’d like to understand how the neurons are wired together there in circuits; how they operate normally. A parallel interest is how all the circuits and all their activity go wrong, specifically in the form of epileptic seizures. Nick has been involved in a set of experiments that have been designed to tell us something about what happens when epileptic activity is generated.”
Nick offers energy, enthusiasm, and an intense curiosity. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries of what he knows. — Professor Barry Connors
“I work with live mice and study live tissue, do dissections, do brain slices and record them,” explains Nick. “I think my growth has been exponential, from barely knowing anything at all, to being able to ask my own questions about the brain.”
“Nick offers energy, enthusiasm, and an intense curiosity,” says Connors. “He’s constantly pushing the boundaries of what he knows.”
After graduation, Nick hopes to study medicine, ultimately working in an area that caters to low-income families and providing health care to anyone who needs it. “I once thought my dreams would just stay dreams,” says Nick. “But now I’m living my dreams: I’m learning what I want to learn, I’m answering questions about the brain, and I’m one step closer to what I thought I would never achieve in my life. None of it would have been possible without the wonderful giving hearts of the alumni who established the scholarship fund that supports me.
This story originally appeared on the Boldly Brown: Campaign for Academic Enrichment website in March 2011.