Gateway UNCG MRI Center Stimulates Nursing Student’s Interest in Critical Care, Research

JUNE 13, 2024 – GREENSBORO, NC – UNCG rising third-year Sebastian Rodriguez learned early on to give himself – and his dreams – space to evolve.

In high school, Rodriguez was one of the top tennis players in North Carolina and on track to become a professional, but he was also a standout student. An interest in health care led him to Harvard’s C-Chan Public Health Summit just before his senior year in high school.

“I learned more about the practice professions, including nursing,” Rodriguez says. “As a nurse, you’re able to directly engage with patients and make sure they’re getting the care they need. I was really interested in the profession and decided nursing was what I wanted to do.”

Rodriguez chose UNCG because of its strong School of Nursing. Now, the Blue & Gold Merit Scholarship recipient is excelling both in and outside the classroom, from studying abroad to conducting brain injury research in the School of Health and Human Sciences with support from a UNCG Thomas Undergraduate Research and Creativity Award.


Rodriguez commutes from Durham to Greensboro for his courses and extracurriculars, but he wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else.

“I love UNCG. I like the relatively small size of the campus,” he says. “I’ve been able to make so many great connections with professors. At a bigger school with more students, it can be harder to interact with professors.”

In the first two years of his undergraduate studies, Rodriquez connected with multiple faculty members, including microbiology instructor Robin Maxwell who brought the basic science material to life.

“Professor Maxwell was incredible,” he says. “Our lectures were often filled with personal stories she would use to enhance how we would learn and ingrain concepts.”

Outside of the classroom – and across the world – Rodriguez has put his academics into action.

Through UNCG Volunteers Around the World , he learned about a medical internship opportunity in Bocas del Toro, Panama, where he spent two weeks shadowing physicians and interacting with patients. He says it has been a highlight of his college experience.

Closer to home, Rodriguez invests in cultivating his nursing skill set. He is now certified as a phlebotomist and nurse aide, the latter recommended by his cousin and grandmother who are both nurses.

“They’re always telling me that getting your CNA is really helpful for patient experience because you learn to handle a large number of patients, help with coordinating behind-the-scenes, and talk with providers,” he says.


Another highlight of Rodriguez’s time at UNCG: getting involved with undergraduate research.

In his first year, he worked with Dr. Stephanie Pickett, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, on psychosocial stressors among minoritized women. He also co-authored a post for the Medical Care Blog of the American Public Health Association.  As part of his research in Monroe’s laboratory, Rodriguez worked in the Gateway UNCG MRI Center, located at the 75-acre Gateway Research Park in east Greensboro.  The research park is a joint partnership between UNCG and North Carolina A&T State University.

“These experiences increased my curiosity about research, but I knew I wanted something more hands-on in terms of data collection or data analysis,” he says.

His next steps into research brought him to a mixed martial arts arena and Gateway UNCG MRI center, where he was part of a 10-person research team led by Dr. Derek Monroe. While scientists have investigated concussions among mixed martial arts athletes, less is known about subconcussive impacts: the focal topic for the team of researchers.

Using mouthguard sensors, they collected data about the frequency, type, and magnitude of impacts experienced by the athletes during sparring. The team logged 1,000 impacts for nine athletes over 50 training sessions. The athletes also came to the Gateway UNCG MRI Center for baseline and specialized scans.

“Watching these athletes, I can really appreciate the amount of work ethic they put in every time they step on the mat,” Rodriguez says. “It was a lot of fun watching it and a great environment to be in.”

With their data, the team can better understand what types of impacts – such as linear versus angular – these athletes most frequently experience and then link these injuries to brain anatomy.

Rodriguez is especially interested in how a diffusion MRI – which tracks water movement within the brain – might indicate trauma.

“The multi-modal approach of Dr. Monroe’s lab emphasized the importance of a holistic perspective in neuroimaging research,” he says.

Diving into research projects gave Rodriguez strengths he can bring to his nursing career, including skills in collaboration and proficiency with scientific terminology.

“Reading scientific articles is definitely a skill and a muscle that you grow over time,” he says. “I enjoy diving into the rabbit hole to answer whatever question I have.”


Rodriguez’s experience in Monroe’s laboratory has expanded his career goals: now, he wants to become a critical care nurse actively involved in research.

“I’m passionate about the critical care field,” he says. “I want to learn how to be that provider who can keep calm during a critical situation and really help patients that are in need while dealing with fatigue and minimizing errors. This is one skill I can bring from my tennis training and would like to hone in a health care context.”

In the upcoming school year, Rodriguez will focus on pediatric populations and patients with neurobehavioral challenges across the lifespan.

“I anticipate that these nursing-related courses and experiences will not only deepen my understanding of neurobehavioral problems and pediatric health but also equip me with the knowledge and skills needed to deliver evidence-based and compassionate care to pediatric populations,” he says. “This will help me become a more competent and empathetic nurse.”

Rodriguez realizes he may gravitate to different aspects of health care as he moves through his career, and he hopes a career in nursing will give him this flexibility to adapt his work to his evolving passions.

“Experiences can change perspectives. The path of nursing allows me to have the opportunity to change perspective and passion as I go,” he says. “There’s also a big need for this profession. Nurses are essential.”

Story by Rachel Damiani
Photography by Sean Norona, University Communications