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Hi everyone! My name is Sandra Thiongo, and I am a junior majoring in psychology (B.S.) and minoring in statistics and analytics. I became interested in topics relating to how humans think while taking AP Psychology in the tenth grade. Memory and perception especially sparked my interests because of the role that they play in how humans navigate the world. I conducted a series of studies connected to memory and perception from 2017 to 2020, including a study on whether eyewitness testimony should determine the fates of those accused in the criminal justice system and research on the effects of visual and auditory sources of misinformation on explicit memory in adults.

I discovered my interests in studying and researching psychology-related topics in high school, but found that I aspire to work in the mental health field in college. I have seen first-hand how the lack of mental health awareness can have detrimental effects on communities, coming from a large Kenyan-American community back home in Georgia. Seeing these effects, especially in the past few years, sparked my drive to work in spaces that treat mental health. I particularly gravitate towards clinical psychology because the approach to assessing and diagnosing mental illness best aligns with my values and goals as an aspiring psychologist.

To learn more about clinical processes and different (evidence-based) treatment methods, I became a research intern at the Grady Trauma Project (based at Emory School of Medicine) in the summer of 2022. This lab focuses on the impacts of trauma, and my project specifically studies the effects of pregnancy on post traumatic symptoms and fear physiology in traumatized African-American women. As an intern, I have gained experience with obtaining IRB approval, administering screens, recording and compiling exhaustive data. Because I wanted to explore how these skills transferred outside of a research setting, I applied for the Gil Internship.

As part of this semester’s cohort, I work as a clinical intern at the UNC Tobacco Treatment Program (UNC TTP). I work under my mentor, Jeremy Finazzo, who is a tobacco treatment counselor at the program, specifically through the Cancer Center. This program treats individuals for tobacco use or dependence in a variety of settings. They use a chronic disease and addiction based model for treatment. Evidence-based interventions, including pharmacotherapy and counseling (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy), are used as a part of this treatment approach. Because a large percentage of American individuals with serious mental illness smoke (around 75% to 80%), this program aims to help address health disparities and the urgency to make tobacco treatments more affordable and accessible.

Through the program, I have been able to shadow counseling sessions at different centers. For instance, I shadowed Brittany Devine, who works alongside Jeremy as a treatment counselor through the Cancer Center. I also got to shadow Julie Hartzell, who works for the inpatient branch of the Tobacco Treatment Program and serves patients from the hospital. Jeremy also connected me with Sarah Sterling, who is a licensed clinical social worker and clinical addiction specialist. I was able to shadow her appointments at UNC Family Medicine as the current team lead for the Weight Management Program. Through these shadowing opportunities, I have been able to observe variations in counseling modalities. Seeing how clinical processes differ based on the virtual versus in-person setting and recognizing differences in counseling style based on the individuals being served (e.g. comparing the UNC TTP and the Weight Management Program), has given me some insight into how services for mental health or mental health-related issues look today.

In addition to shadowing counseling sessions, I have had more hands-on experiences with counseling session preparation, writing counseling notes, and treatment planning. Understanding the types of information to obtain before beginning a session (e.g. type of insurance and medical history), filling out “flow sheets” after counseling sessions, and identifying the most fitting form of tobacco treatment to offer — nicotine replacement treatments (NRTs), Wellbutrin (bupropion), and Chantix (varenicline) — are some tasks that I have engaged in through Jeremy’s mentorship. In regard to administrative work, I have observed how to collect monthly data for the program and how to clean data. Helping Jeremy with this type of work has been interesting because I see parallels with the content that I learn as a statistics minor.

I have already gained a lot of knowledge and work experiences relating to the field that I want to enter later in life, so I would like to thank the Gil Internship and the UNC TTP for giving me these opportunities.

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