Hello everyone! My name is Courtney Pfister, and I am a senior from Waxhaw, North Carolina, majoring in both neuroscience and Asian studies with a concentration in Mandarin Chinese. Throughout my time at Carolina, I have worked in Dr. Gabriel Dichter’s Clinical Affective Neuroscience Lab, which uses cross-sectional and longitudinal approaches to understanding and treating mood disorders and autism spectrum disorder. As the lab investigates these topics using MRI and dynamic PET combined with clinical assessments, I have been introduced to the fascinating world of neuroimaging and seen how it is the perfect intersection of clinical interaction, computer science, and neuroscience. My experience in the lab not only developed my passion for using neuroimaging to explore psychopathology, but also sparked my interest in how different psychotherapy treatments can cause physical alterations in brain structure. These interests have led me to pursue my current Gil Internship with the UNC Early Brain Development Study (EBDS) in the UNC School of Medicine.
Led by Dr. John Gilmore, the EBDS is a longitudinal research study that aims to use neuroimaging and developmental assessments of children from birth to early childhood to explore biomarkers that predict psychopathology. The study compares data from over 1000 children who are typically developing as well as children who are at high risk for neuropsychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia to identify children at risk prior to disease onset as well as develop targeted interventions to promote healthful outcomes. The study combines the research conducted at many different labs, with behavioral assessments conducted at the Frank Porter Graham Child (FPG) development institute and neuroimaging analysis done at the Neuro Image Research and Analysis Laboratories (NIRAL). In fact, NIRAL uses imaging software to study volumes of participants’ white matter and grey matter in different brain regions.
Due to my background in neuroimaging, I have so far spent most of my time working at NIRAL, where I use a cluster computing unix-based environment to work on brain masking of structural MRI scans from participants in the 8-year-old and 10-year-old cohorts. Upon completion of this brain masking project, I will be completing a data analysis project in which I will compare relative volumes of either surface-level white or gray matter in participants with neuropsychiatric disorder symptomology to those without. I hope that through this analysis I will be able to see if there is a connection between different volumes of cortical matter and an increased risk for psychiatric disorders. Additionally, as the lab is currently conducting a cognitive training study to investigate changes in the brain associated with improvements in training-related cognition, I hope to get involved with the clinical side of the study by observing behavioral testing of these participants at the FPG.
Throughout my time as an intern, I have gained valuable experience with neuroimaging software programs and have learned much about the value of collaboration, professionalism, and problem-solving in an interdisciplinary laboratory setting. Through working with a diverse, multifaceted research team including computer scientists, developmental psychologists, and psychiatrists, I have learned to appreciate the value of varying perspectives in conducting comprehensive and translational research. Thus far, my experience at EBDS has strengthened my interest in exploring psychopathology using MRI technology as well as my desire to specialize in neurology in the future. I am excited to take on more responsibility as the semester progresses and learn more about the association between brain structure and function to prepare me for a future career as a physician-scientist. I am beyond grateful for the guidance and advice given to me by both postdoctoral fellow Dr. Rebecca Stephens as well as imaging studies extraordinaire Joe Blocher, and I can’t wait to see what comes next both in terms of my Gil Internship experience and my research in neuroscience as a whole!