Alumni in Action: Kathleen Hupfeld ’16 wants to pave the way

Hupfeld was recently named to the 2023 Forbes 30 Under 30 for Science due to her work using an MRI scanner to measure brain chemicals as an alternative to intensive brain biopsies.

Kathleen Hupfeld ’16 has made a name for herself as one of the emerging leaders in the world of neuroscience. She’s authored over 30 papers, has nearly 400 citations and has been granted more than $660,000 in grant funding and achievement awards. Most recently, she was named to the 2023 Forbes 30 Under 30 Science list.

But she, and women alike, make up only 27% of STEM workers as of 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And in her field of neuroscience, more specifically MRI physics, women representation is even harder to find, Hupfeld says.

It is the idea of encouraging young women to explore STEM careers that truly motivates her.

“I hope this recognition will help to increase the visibility of female neuroscientists, especially in fields where they remain underrepresented, such as MRI physics,” Hupfeld said. “I’m passionate about encouraging young women to explore STEM careers, particularly during the middle school years — a time at which many girls opt out of science classes, but positive STEM experiences can have a lasting impact.”

It was a helping hand that deepened her love for STEM. Hupfeld was working on a high school project and mailed a letter to the U.S. National Institutes of Health asking for all their research on strokes. A few weeks later, she received a large packet of data and a personalized letter thanking her for the request.

It was that experience of being taken seriously that boosted her confidence and firmly solidified her future in STEM.

A similar amount of respect and regard is what Hupfeld says made her Elon experience special. Because of dedicated research mentors and equally dedicated classmates, Hupfeld was constantly involved in meaningful research and coursework. Meaningful, lifelong connections, such as serving as science editor for a recent book from her first-year roommate Stephanie Wisner, were just the cherries on top.

“It was clear that faculty cared about my personal development and future goals,” Hupfeld said. “I would not have applied for certain awards or graduate fellowships if not for the many hours of personalized advice and support from my fantastic research mentor, Caroline Ketcham.”

Ketcham, a professor of exercise science, said she was always impressed with Hupfeld’s ability to focus on choosing opportunities that interested her, having a breadth of interests both in and out of academia. Hupfeld spent a lot of her time as an Elon student in the community, volunteering with Best Buddies International, the Special Olympics of Alamance County, and the North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center.

In the classroom, Hupfeld was a Kenan Scholar in the Class of 2016 Honors Fellows, as well as a Lumen Scholar. Her playful spirit and self-motivation have been key to her success, Ketcham says. When mentioning the work she’s done to support young girls venturing into STEM, Ketcham says she’s beyond “impressed and proud” but not the least bit surprised.

“Kathleen is one of the best stewards and role models there could be. I hope as her earliest research mentor she genuinely saw the joy, the mess, some balance and some success. These paths are not one size fits all and shouldn’t be hidden and I know Kathleen embraces and shares that with the young women she works with,” Ketcham said.

Currently, Hupfeld is a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her recognition on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list comes from her work at Johns Hopkins using an MRI scanner to measure brain chemicals. The work of Hupfeld and her colleagues can measure more than 10 chemicals in 10 minutes, compared to before which would take 30 minutes and only measure three low-concentration chemicals.

With all her success and forward progression, Hupfeld says that she consistently returns to values engrained in her while at Elon. Personal connection paired with purpose is something that Hupfeld will take with her whatever her journey goes.

“I still value and use so many of the skills I developed at Elon,” she said.