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During my senior year at UNC, I had the privilege of being a part of the Gil Internship fall 2019 cohort. As an intern, I was connected with UNC Mother Infant Research Studies– Dr. Karen Grewen’s research lab in the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry. I was fortunate to be hired as a full-time Social/Clinical Research Assistant following graduation in May 2020. As a Gil intern, I primarily became involved with the lab’s Baby Brain study– a study that looks at baby brain development and behavior in the first year of life for babies prenatally exposed to licit and illicit substances. Since starting full-time at UNC Mother Infant Research Studies, the technical and interpersonal skills that were planted during my time as a Gil intern have had the opportunity to flourish.

The staff members at UNC Mother Infant Research Studies have a diverse range of education and career backgrounds: nursing, social work, psychology, and more. Some have extensive research experience and others have counseling skills that are essential for working with our vulnerable research population. It has been so valuable to soak up the myriad of skills and knowledge that characterize our research lab– from completing detail-oriented data entry to learning how best to support moms with a history of substance abuse.

I’ve taken on many administrative tasks that ensure our research lab is operating in an organized and efficient manner. These tasks include creating documents to keep track of consent forms and payments, standardizing the flow of study visits and data collection, and maintaining systems for entering and quality checking data. These tasks have been especially essential during the COVID-19 pandemic as we have had to constantly adjust protocols in response to the evolving public health situation. The past year has required innovation and adaptability in order to continue recruiting and consenting participants and collecting data while keeping the safety of our participants and staff top priority.

One of our primary forms of data collection is infant MRIs. Our Baby Brain study uses MRI scans to analyze brain structure and functional connectivity throughout infants’ first year of life (typically obtaining images when babies are 2 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, and 12 months old). Following protocols and guidance from the UNC Biomedical Research Imaging Center, we were able to develop a safe procedure to continue collecting infant MRI data.

However, we’ve encountered many challenges with these visits due to COVID-19 related factors. Babies must be lulled into a deep sleep for successful MRI scans– so they can easily be placed in the scanner without waking up and so there is minimal movement on the scan images. But these babies have spent the majority of their first year of life at home with immediate family members due to pandemic restrictions. An unfamiliar place that resembles a doctor’s office with strangers wearing masks and lab coats is not exactly conducive to a relaxing nap for infants. The mothers in our study, all of whom had their baby right before or during the COVID-19 pandemic and many of whom have a history of substance abuse, are also experiencing varying levels of stress. Supporting the moms that participate in our research study has been one of the most valuable aspects of working with UNC Mother Infant Research Studies. I’ve familiarized myself with community resources, stayed attuned to participants’ needs during study visits, and learned grounding techniques that help calm moms when they are feeling overwhelmed.

I am confident that these interpersonal skills will serve me well as I venture towards a career in doula work. I plan to become a DONA certified birth doula this year and hope to begin practicing doula care with an agency or independently by the end of 2021. My work with UNC Mother Infant Research Studies has given me invaluable experience with mothers who struggle with substance use disorder and will shape the ways in which I support mothers and infants affected by SUD in my future doula work. I am beyond grateful for the many ways the Gil internship has shaped my career trajectory and for the ongoing support from the Gil community.

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