A lasting impact

A tribute to the life and career of Binyam Nardos, PhD

by Michele Berhorst   • March 16, 2022

Binyam Nardos, PhD, on his graduation day from the neuroscience doctoral degree program.

On Jan. 29, the Program in Occupational Therapy unexpectedly lost our dear colleague and friend, Binyam Nardos, PhD, 39. Nardos had joined the faculty as an instructor in occupational therapy and neurology just six months prior, but had already made an impact with the students he taught and mentored. Becoming an instructor in the Program was especially meaningful for Nardos, whose lifelong love of education and learning started at a young age.

Nardos was born in 1982 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the second-youngest of six children. His father, Nardos Abebe, was a professor who instructed other educators in teaching pedagogy. One of those educators was his mother, Zewditu Kebede. “When I was five, I had a very inquisitive mind and wanted to know how things worked. I had a million questions,” Nardos said in a 2021 video. He even followed his older sister, Rahel, to her first day of school. When the teacher told him there were no seats left in the classroom, Nardos replied, “That’s fine because I can help you teach!”

As he grew up, following Rahel to school became a familiar pattern. Nardos attended the same international high school as she did in Addis Ababa. She received a scholarship to attend Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and he followed her there a few years later on his own scholarship. After Nardos earned his bachelor’s degree in economics in 2004, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do next. Rahel, who had graduated from Yale School of Medicine, was completing her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She encouraged her brother to use his minor in computer science to apply for a research technician job in the lab of neurologist Maurizio Corbetta, MD. Nardos got the job, moved to St. Louis and started working for researcher Lisa Tabor Connor, PhD, MSOT, OTR/L. She was imaging the human brain to study the mechanisms of language recovery in people with stroke and aphasia.

“Binyam was such a night owl. It was not uncommon for him to be starting work just when the rest of us were leaving for the day,” recalls Connor. “That schedule was perfect for Binyam, who was also notorious for being late. Not on purpose, he would just get intensely caught up in whatever he was doing at the moment and lose track of time.”

Working with the scans so closely eventually sparked Nardos’ own interest in brain function. After a couple years, Connor and others in the lab encouraged Nardos to apply for the neuroscience PhD program. Not only was he accepted into the program, but Nardos was a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow and was honored as a Cognitive, Computational and Systems Neuroscience Fellow through the McDonnell Center for Systems Neuroscience. He also became known for picking an argument and standing his ground. Mario Ortega, PhD, remembers fondly how Nardos would stay in the East Building late into the night arguing neuroscience with fellow student Tim Laumann, PhD, and neuroscientist Avi Snyder, MD, PhD. “Binyam was not afraid to speak his mind. He did not shy away from conflict or differing opinions. It was a hallmark of his character,” Ortega says. “He had a genuine interest and respect for what your position was even if he didn’t agree with it.”

Despite his busy academic and work schedule, Nardos made strong ties to the Ethiopian community in St. Louis. He co-founded a book drive with Rahel and her husband, Damien Fair, PhD, that resulted in $2,000 and 2,000 medical books being sent to the medical school libraries at Addis Ababa University, the main teaching hospital in his home country’s capital city.

“After Rahel and I left WashU in 2008, Binyam continued the book drive on his own. This was no small feat by far,” says Fair. “It’s not just about gathering books – it takes a big effort to get people to donate current medical books. Binyam went to bookstores, talked to departments and tapped any resource he could to find books. The fact he was able to do it by himself was amazing and a testament to his character.”

Nardos earned his PhD in neuroscience in 2015 under the mentorship of Bradley L. Schlaggar, MD, PhD, studying how the human brain learns and remembers the meanings of words. He then completed his postdoctoral training at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland, Ore., where he was mentored by Fair and Mary Heinricher, PhD, from 2015 to 2021. Nardos was awarded the OHSU Fellowship for Diversity & Inclusion in Research, reflecting work he had done with a science-focused youth-outreach program. Schlaggar, now the president and CEO of Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Md., felt being a part of Nardos’ life over the years was truly a gift.

“I had the pleasure of serving as his doctoral thesis mentor, remaining as a career mentor, and, most importantly, being his friend. Binyam had a wonderful and rare combination of qualities – not only was he extremely intelligent, brimming with creative solutions and novel ideas, he was also a deep thinker who listened actively and carefully to the ideas of others,” Schlaggar shares. “He cared immensely about understanding the perspectives of others. He was also a warm, funny, gentle, kind, very humble and memorably generous person, with an ethos that called him to think about, and to work on, ideas and issues that affected others, especially those from groups underrepresented in science and medicine.”

It was mentoring students from underrepresented populations with the goal of advancing their careers in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine fields that meant the most to Nardos. Colleague Catherine Hoyt, PhD, OTD, OTR/L, remembers the excitement she felt learning Nardos would be returning to Washington University and knowing what he could uniquely bring to the Program, its students and the occupational therapy profession.

“About a year ago, Binyam told me he wanted to teach. When the opportunity came for him to join our faculty last summer, I was so excited for him and for the Program,” Hoyt says. “His interest in teaching and helping learners enjoy and embrace new ideas was such an integral part of who he was. He was dedicated to inclusion and helping all students appreciate neuroscience and research. Binyam helped the Washington University Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity Chapter to identify and develop their goals. He was also developing research methods to track how different teaching methods may impact students, particularly those who may feel excluded.”

In fall 2021, Nardos began teaching the Elements of Research Design course to first-year students. Although it was not the most exciting subject to teach, he approached it with such energy and humor that he immediately connected with students. Nathan Hopkins, MSOT/S ’24, describes what he thinks set Nardos apart and endeared him so quickly to his students.

“Teaching was like a craft for Binyam that he was constantly working to perfect. One day after class, I found him on the fourth floor of Becker Library alone. I asked what he was doing, and as he looked up at me, I noticed he was reading the class-required textbook. He simply smiled and said, ‘I'm just trying to get better like you guys are.’ It was then that I knew how lucky we were to have a professor who had that level of dedication toward his students,” Hopkins remembers. “Many of us had traveled a great distance to attend Washington University to achieve our professional goals and take a risk on ourselves. He was a faculty member who made you feel like you'd made the right choice. Words can't even begin to describe how much Binyam cared for his students or the grief that many of us felt when we learned the news of his passing. We had only known him for a few months, but his impact will last a lifetime. Someday, we will look back on our time at Washington University and remember how nervous we were to attend or how frightening it was to leave home. We will also remember how all of that changed the day we met Binyam Nardos. He was a professor, a mentor, and above all, a friend.”

That sentiment is echoed by Connor, associate dean for occupational therapy:  “Binyam was kind and caring, with a sharp intellect and wit. He put everyone who interacted with him at ease. He exuded warmth and had genuine interest in people and how to make the world a better place. We will sincerely miss him.”

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