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My name is Adunoluwa Akinola, and I am in my third and final year at UNC studying neuroscience with minors in health and society as well as chemistry. I grew up in Kernersville, NC where at 9 years of age, my hair began falling out in considerable clumps. After hopping back and forth between a couple of clinics, my diagnosis was finally determined: Alopecia Areata. This is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system erroneously detects hair follicles as foreign within the body and destroys them, causing hair loss. I felt completely bewildered as an extensive list of often experimental treatments stretched out before me, including but not limited to immunosuppressants, ultraviolet follicle stimulation, and numerous injections into my scalp—around 30-50 per session. I eventually decided to leave the needles and topical creams behind and stop treatment altogether, but what I carry with me now as a student interested in a medical career, is the intentionality behind my dermatologist’s communication.

She made me feel like she and I were a team, and she used her role as a physician to protect my ability to make whatever decisions felt best for me. Psychologically, I felt like I was not entirely alone, despite not knowing another person with my condition. This experience is what drew me toward the various research opportunities I have been involved in since then, and ultimately the work happening at Duke as I applied for a highly coveted spot as a Gil intern.

I have been involved in undergraduate research since high school where I explored the intersection of psychology and physiological health via the impact of music on skin conductivity with eventual implications for diabetes health outcomes. During my review of literature for this project I quickly realized that the seemingly unrelated psychological occurrences of daily life have more physiological consequences than I had previously given them credit for. This eventually led me into the work I do at the Social Neuroscience Health Lab (SNH Lab) at UNC under Dr. Keely Muscatell.

Since I started in this lab after my first year, I have learned the intricate interplay between the brain and the immune system and how there is a stark relationship between social stress and negative load on the body that ends in poor health outcomes. This relationship appears to be mediated by the neurological processes that govern ‘fight or flight’ responses. This work fascinated me, and in addition to being at the forefront of research in a relatively nascent field, I learned practical skills such as professionalism in the context of research, guiding participants through complex protocol while maintaining the integrity of the study, and experience with different physiological data cleaning and writing software, and effective literature review.

These experiences helped to equip me with the skills I needed to craft a confident application to the Karen M. Gil Internship’s 2024 Spring cohort, where I am now grateful to participate in professional development and work as a Research Intern in the Duke Pain Prevention and Treatment Lab under Dr. Laura Porter.

In this lab, I have been exposed to the emotionally deep, but scientifically under investigated world psychology in the context of palliative care. In the lab meetings, we discuss the ways in which more light can be shed on this topic—a way forward for people facing terminal illness and for their communities. My review of literature has not only been by way of scientific journals, but I have also had the opportunity to read When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. His poignant work sheds light on questions important to us in the Duke Pain Prevention and Treatment Lab: What are patients and their families concerned about when faced with mortality? What do they need from healthcare providers?

The lab honed in on the powerful, “supernatural force” (in Kalanithi’s words) of language. This has led me to my future in the lab, which will include processing the transcripts of the dialogue of couples facing cancer. This will allow me to see what people are thinking about in the dire times they are facing and learn how to best provide useful interventions for them and protect their autonomy as they face what are often the worst days of their lives.

The work I will be doing is using linguistic analysis software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) to analyze the conversations for the use of certain pronouns (i.e., “we/us/ours” versus “you/yours”) between the patient and their partner and determine if it is linked to quality-of-life outcomes. While assessing the conversations and the relationship between verbiage choices and quality-of-life, I hope to learn more about what it looks like to be intentional with my own words as an aspiring physician and have the same impact my dermatologist had on me on patients going through times requiring unprecedented strength from them.

All in all, I have learned an astounding amount in just a few months and I am excited to expand upon this research and potentially look at the use of language in other cultural settings, as well network more with individuals interested in applying the intersection of psychology and physiology/quality-of-life to medical care in order to further improve health outcomes for people everywhere. I am so grateful for this experience, for the privilege to forge relationships with the other members of my cohort and be surrounded by people doing impactful work!

 

 

 

 

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