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New Zebrowitz Memorial Fellowship Funds Graduate Brain Researchers

By Michelle Hiskey | Development Communications | July 27, 2015

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Andy Zebrowitz and his mother Cyndy Newcomer at a family wedding in 2009.

Born in 1979, Andrew Morris “Andy” Zebrowitz grew up in the digital age and became a software engineer. He had a gift for understanding technology and could solve difficult problems that eluded others. When he died from a subarachnoid brain hemorrhage at age 30, his family searched for a way to honor his legacy.

By establishing an endowed fund, the Andy Zebrowitz Memorial Brain Research Fellowship, Andy’s family will support biomedical engineering (BME) students in Emory’s Laney Graduate School as they work to develop new ways to diagnose and treat brain injury, trauma, and bleeding disorders.

They announced their gift July 27, 2015, on what would have been Andy’s 36th birthday.

The goal is to improve protections for the brain. Students chosen as Zebrowitz Fellows are likely to be working in interdisciplinary teams under the guidance and mentorship of BME graduate faculty whose research spans BME and neuroscience.

The new endowment will support BME graduate students, who are the work force behind so many research discoveries at Emory, for generations to come.

“At the end of the day, grad students and fellows do the work. I have some initial ideas, but what matters is the demonstration and pursuits of ideas, and you can’t just have a robot doing the work. You need grad students who are good, and donor funding helps attract them,” said Hanjoong Jo, John and Jan Portman Professor of Biomedical Engineering, who relies on graduate students to move forward his leading work in atherosclerosis.

The current Zebrowitz Fellow is Kyle P. Blum 18PhD, who is studying how the brain can interpret electrical signals as information about body orientation, and how this information is altered in some neurological disorders such as peripheral neuropathies and Parkinson’s disease. 

“This contribution in honor of Andy Zebrowitz’s memory will go a long way in helping me to continue in my passion of studying the brain,” Blum said. “It means a great deal to me that there are individuals that understand the importance of brain research. It is their generosity and kindness that not only support researchers financially, but also motivate us personally to make great strides in our work.”

Blum and other biomedical engineers in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering are inventing new ways of understanding and modulating brain function. “Technology is playing an exciting role in giving us insight into the brain and its operations. Our imaging techniques are not only revealing structure but also function" said department chair Ravi Bellamkonda. “The Zebrowitz family gift will undoubtedly enable talented graduate students to pursue breakthroughs in research at the intersection of technology and the brain.”

“We are deeply grateful to the Zebrowitz family for choosing us to shepherd their gift,” said Laney Graduate School Dean Lisa Tedesco. “This gift represents a true understanding of the responsibility for and power of graduate education. Through the work of our leading researchers and specifically how they mentor graduate students, we are ensuring breakthroughs not only in science today but also innovation for care delivery for people today and for future generations.”

Andy’s quirky intellect

Like the researchers his family is supporting, Andy was willing to think differently and push limits of what everyone knows. His family and friends knew him as an independent thinker, a rebel who loved to push boundaries.

“As a boy, he would lead his friends into mischief they could never have imagined on their own and they encouraged and followed him,” said his mother, Cyndy Newcomer. “I think he represented risk and adventure that they would not otherwise have been brave enough to try.”

Online, Andy’s screen name was Ranting Kitten, because he loved passionate diatribes and felines. “He could have and should have been the successor to Andy Rooney of television fame,” his mother said. “To quote one friend, ‘While he put up a façade by complaining about nearly everything, he was truly a caring individual.’”

In January 2010, Andy was instant-messaging friends about a horrific headache that worsened to the point where he sought care at Emory University Hospital, undergoing several surgeries. For the next 19 days in the neurological intensive care unit, “the bleeding in his brain never got completely under control,” said his sister, Robin Zebrowitz Harpak. “And the doctors could not tell what caused the initial hemorrhage or subsequent ones, even after an autopsy.”

“This was so sudden that it was unbelievable,” said Rosalyn Felheimer, his maternal grandmother. “It was so quick and so sad, and it’s hard to get over. It should never have happened to a man so young. We wanted to find an answer to this and avert it in the future.”

Endowing a legacy

In the years that followed, his mother, uncle and other family members celebrated Andy by continuing his passion for trivia. They play at Rosa’s Pizza in East Cobb and named their team The Ranting Kittens.

Andy’s mother, stepfather, and maternal grandmother also sought a way to memorialize him for future generations.

“I knew I wanted it to be something at Emory because I felt the care Andy received there was exceptional, despite the outcome,” his mother said. “My dream was to fund a whole wing of the hospital for neurosurgery patients, but short of winning the lottery I realized that was unlikely. However, I thought I had enough money to start some kind of research fellowship.”

To make that happen, the family relied on Andy’s sister. After his death, Harpak moved from Israel to Atlanta and applied for work at Emory as a way of expressing her appreciation for the efforts to save his life. Today she is associate director of development and alumni relations for the Laney Graduate School.

“There is no window to the brain, and that will be the subject of biomedical engineering for the next years to come,” she said. “This fellowship will support research for tools that doctors will use, to prevent families like ours from suffering. Further, our family wants to be sure that Andy is remembered.”

“The why of Andy’s death will forever be a mystery,” his mother said. “Not knowing the cause is not as difficult as wondering if we made the right treatment decisions in the days and weeks following his admission to the hospital. Through this fellowship, I want people who knew Andy to remember him, perhaps through donating to this fund in future years. I also want people who didn’t know him, particularly those conducting the research, to know there are real people affected by what they do and that what they do is appreciated. Most important, I hope that whatever research is done in Andy’s name will lead to advancements in diagnosing and treating the type of problem that Andy had. That will keep other people and their families from going through what he and we went through.”

To support the Andy Zebrowitz Memorial Brain Research Fellowship and other doctoral programs at the Laney School of Graduate Studies, contact Robin Z. Harpak at 404.712.9341 or robin.harpak@emory.edu.