Hair, Hair for Equity in Neuroscience Research

Undergrad Expands African Americans鈥 Participation in Studies by Styling Hair So They Can Wear Sensor-Using Caps
Assistant Professor Rachel Romeo and Abria Simmons '25 place a fNIRS neuroimaging cap on volunteer Cole Parker.

Rachel Romeo, a 含羞草研究所 assistant professor of 含羞草研究所, wants to shine a light on kids鈥 early development鈥攍iterally. Using a technique called Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), she beams light into the brain from sensors on a stretchy black cap, pinpointing blood flow to measure brain activity.

But in summer 2022, she realized she would have a hard time including a swath of the population in her study, because that light can鈥檛 easily penetrate Afro-textured hair, which is dark and densely curled. Yet her focus is on socioeconomic disparities in learning and development; she had to find a way to work with kids from all backgrounds.

鈥淢ost of the time in neuroscience research, if you can鈥檛 get a good signal from a participant, you just exclude them or you throw that data away,鈥 said Romeo, who directs the Language, Experience, and Development (LEAD) Lab. 鈥淭his contributes to underrepresentation.鈥

, and as a white woman, Romeo didn鈥檛 know where to turn to learn how to change that dynamic. So she put out an ad for a lab assistant to help braid Black hair鈥攁nd serendipitously, Abria Simmons 鈥25 had just declared a human development minor and enrolled in one of Romeo鈥檚 classes. She wasn鈥檛 a professional, but learned from generations of women in her family and was eager to help increase Black representation in neuroscience.

A laptop shows data received from the fNIRS cap; green and blue indicate good signal, while red indicates poor signal.
A laptop shows data received from the fNIRS cap; green and blue indicate good signal, while red indicates poor signal.

鈥淭here鈥檚 a lot of distrust in African American communities of medical research because of the neglect of African American bodies in earlier research studies, so it鈥檚 really important that they feel comfortable enough to be included today,鈥 said Simmons, an aspiring counseling psychologist for kids and teens.

Now, she鈥檚 heading the effort to develop best practices for braiding and styling Afro-textured hair for fNIRS neuroimaging. She initially conducted a literature review but only found a few recommendations for EEG caps, which work differently than fNIRS. So she turned to Black barbers and hairstylists for tips, then started recruiting volunteers so she could experiment on their hair before the start of Romeo鈥檚 trials with 3- and 4-year-olds this fall.

鈥淭his has been a real friends and family project for me,鈥 Simmons said. Throughout the summer, she brought five participants, including her brother and best friend. She first tried cornrows, which she鈥檚 most familiar with, braiding them in different patterns to avoid the optodes (sensors) on the cap.

By the end of the summer, she determined that the most successful braiding style involves creating a middle part, then braiding from the center of the scalp down toward the ears. With different curl and hair-growth patterns, however, it鈥檚 not a one-size-fits-all solution.

That鈥檚 why Romeo gave the go-ahead for Simmons to purchase a cart full of barbershop products, including clips and combs, tubs of edge control and gel, and a hair dryer and diffuser, so that people with dreadlocks or shorter hair also have options. It鈥檚 already proven useful: Romeo brought in her first 4-year-old Black participant, and since his hair wasn鈥檛 long enough to be braided, his mom used the gel to slick his hair up and out of the way.

Abria Simmons '25 Simmons braids the hair of volunteer Corbien Parker for a LEAD Lab project on developing best practices for styling Afro-textured hair for neuroscience research.
Simmons braids the hair of volunteer Corbien Parker.

Simmons knows how much effort it takes to care for and style Afro-textured hair, so she makes sure to schedule times in the lab based on participants鈥 wash days and prioritizes the health of the hair as she works. Some of her earliest memories involve three- to four-hour braiding sessions with her mom as she fell asleep in her lap as a toddler, with Disney princess movies playing in the background.

鈥淚t was definitely a bonding experience,鈥 said Simmons, who took what she learned and combined it with YouTube tutorials to develop her own style as a teenager.

In September, she traveled to the Flux Society conference for developmental cognitive neuroscience with Romeo and other LEAD Lab members, where Simmons won best poster out of more than 130 presentations. Having tenured professors and longtime researchers seek her advice on data collection challenges was surprising but validating.

鈥淭here鈥檚 not many Black women in our research field, so I really want to represent my community,鈥 Simmons said. She鈥檚 planning to expand on her poster presentation and write a paper next summer, and hopes her findings can give scientists the tools to conduct more equitable studies.

Romeo said, 鈥淚 needed someone who was creative and willing to take the plunge with us. I'm just really grateful to have a partner who is willing to flip institutions on their head and figure out how to make neuroscience more inclusive.鈥

Top image: From left, Assistant Professor Rachel Romeo and Abria Simmons 鈥25 place a fNIRS neuroimaging cap on volunteer Cole Parker. Simmons is developing best practices for styling Afro-textured hair for research on children鈥檚 early development.

Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle