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Hello everyone! My name is Gretchen Davis, and I am a third-year student at UNC studying neuroscience with minors in chemistry and Spanish for the medical professions. I am from the charming town of Pittsboro, nestled a quick half-hour drive outside of Chapel Hill. Here, my love for volunteering and science blossomed as I dedicated my time to volunteering at a free health clinic in my community and leading campaigns for local food pantries, long-term care facilities, and school supplies drives. These experiences deepened my love for serving my community, but also demonstrated the impact that collective efforts can have in fostering change within our society.

As I’ve found my place at Carolina, it is these lessons and values that guide me, shaping my commitment to effecting positive change in both my academic pursuits and broader engagements with the world. I volunteer with local organizations such as the Arc of the Triangle and NC Therapeutic Riding Center; additionally, I’ve pursued clinical opportunities such as working as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at UNC hospital. 

Nonetheless, the most instrumental part of my experience at Carolina has been engaging with the scientific research community. I began working in Dr. Mohanish Deshmukh’s lab as a work study student, and quickly realized I wanted to engage more in hands-on research. Under mentorship from Nicole Hondrogiannis, I began working on a CRISPR project aimed at investigating the efficacy of various delivery methods for gene knockout in mouse superior cervical ganglion (SCG) neurons. Specifically, we focused on targeting the Bax gene, a key player in the apoptotic (i.e. programmed cell death) pathway, utilizing techniques such as electroporation and lentiviral transduction. 

This semester, I have had the honor of being part of the Spring 2024 Gil Cohort! I have been interning at UNC Early Brain Development Studies under mentorship from Dr. John Gilmore and Dr. Rebecca Stephens. Here, I have been able to engage with a longitudinal study aiming to investigate early childhood brain development and its correlation with cognitive development and susceptibility to psychiatric disorders. This study combines various neuroimaging techniques such as structural, diffusion-weighted, and functional MRI with genetic, environmental, and behavioral assessments. With a cohort of over 1000 children enrolled prenatally and followed longitudinally from birth to adolescence, this study aims to reveal early imaging biomarkers of cognitive and behavioral outcomes with the goal of facilitating early identification of risk and intervention strategies to enhance outcomes.

During my internship, I have undergone training in the quality control assessment of T1 and T2 weighted MRI scans to detect motion artifacts. When working with scans of children and adolescents, some degree of motion artifact is inevitable given eye movement and hemodynamic fluctuations from blood flow. However, it becomes imperative to identify MRI scans with severe motion artifacts and exclude them from further analysis to prevent the generation of inaccurate results in downstream analyses. Throughout the semester, I have examined and categorized over 800 MRI scans based on the severity of motion artifacts present, categorizing them on a scale from 1 to 4 based on usability.

As the semester advances, my focus has shifted towards analyzing the progression of attention disorders. The determination of whether an individual is considered “at risk” for attention disorders typically involves utilizing tools such as the BASC (The Behavior Assessment System for Children) or Conners (Conners Comprehensive Behavior Rating Scale) behavioral assessment. Under mentorship from Dr. Stephens, I have begun examining datasets comprising BASC and Conners scores obtained from patients of ages 4, 6, 8, and 10 years old, as they have progressed through the longitudinal UNC Early Brain Development Study. By analyzing this dataset, our objective is to uncover correlations and discern patterns between demographic factors and an individual’s risk of developing attention disorders, as predicted by BASC and Conners scores. Specifically, we aim to address questions such as:

Are individuals identified as at risk for attention disorders during early ages more likely to maintain this classification? How does race and gender influence the risk of developing attention disorders? Does the presence of underlying conditions such as schizophrenia heighten the susceptibility of being classified as at risk for attention disorders?

In reflecting on my journey as a Gil intern thus far, I am immensely grateful for the opportunities and growth I’ve experienced this semester. My sincere appreciation extends to my mentors at UNC Early Brain Development Studies, Dr. Rebecca Stephens and Dr. John Gilmore, for their mentorship. Furthermore, I thank my Gil Internship Program Director, Dr. Steven Buzinski, and the Gil Internship Program Manager, Emily Dolegowski, whose support and guidance are what have made this experience possible for myself, along with countless other Gil interns.

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