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Two years ago, as a bright-eyed and eager freshman, I sat down in my PSYC 101 class, planning to obtain my general education requirement and move on. Instead, this experience sparked a deep fascination with the human brain, particularly in the realm of cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology. The human brain remains one of the most intricate and fascinating subjects of study and its development from infancy through adolescence is a symphony of complex processes, influenced by a myriad of factors ranging from genetic predispositions to environmental stimuli. This journey of neural maturation not only shapes our cognitive abilities but also lays the foundation for our emotional and behavioral responses to the world around us.

To gain a more comprehensive understanding of neural circuitry and the human connectome, I joined the Carolina Center for Neurostimulation at the Department of Psychiatry the summer before my sophomore year. Working under the supervision of Dr. Flavio Fröhlich, I analyze and collect data for several nationally recognized clinical trials studying the behavioral and cognitive effects of biomedical device intervention, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS). This experience not only deepened my knowledge of neurostimulation but also introduced me to data analysis and experimental design in a clinical setting. Additionally, collaborating with researchers and clinicians at the forefront of neuroscience has broadened my perspective on the intricate workings of the brain and inspired me to pursue further research in this field.

For my Gil Internship, I have been working as a research assistant for Mother Infant Research Studies, operative in the UNC School of Medicine, led by Dr. Karen Grewen. This laboratory studies various aspects of the mother-infant relationship, such as the impact of prenatal substance exposure on infant brain development, effects of maternal anxiety and depression, and how infant behavior develops in the first year of life. As an intern, I am primarily focused on data monitoring and collection for the Healthy Brain and Child Development (HBCD) study, the largest long-term study of early brain and childhood development taking place across 27 different recruitment sites in the United States. There is no specific hypothesis for this project, and one of our major study aims include facilitating data sharing under an open science model and serving as a resource for the worldwide scientific community to enable broad use of the HBCD data.

During my time on this project, I have been trained to collect various forms of biological, behavioral, and cognitive data. With data collection in its initial stages, I have had the opportunity to shadow pilot electroencephalogram (EEG) visits, where we monitor infant brain activity while they engage with various videos and computerized tasks. In the upcoming months, I will also start shadowing infant MRI visits, and take a more active role in communicating with mothers regarding safety and logistics. Additionally, I have participated in multiple national team meetings, gaining firsthand experience in the complexities of conducting research on such a large scale, including learning how to standardize data collection and collaborate with diverse research teams.

As a researcher, I consider it a privilege to be involved in an incredibly intimate part of a family’s life, and I have been given extensive training and resources on substance use disorders, effects of prenatal substance use, and caring for substance-exposed infants to best serve the population of women and children who participate in our research studies. Through literature reviews and substantial reading, I’ve come to increasingly appreciate the power of language, particularly in addressing substance use in vulnerable populations. The words we use can significantly impact how families perceive substance use and recovery, and it is crucial to make changes to eliminate the stigma and discrimination associated with substance use disorders. I am continually learning about gender-specific substance use disorders and effective treatment options for mothers and infants and will conduct my Senior Honors Thesis within the lab next semester, focusing on analyzing infant electroencephalogram (EEG) data and its correlation to various brain rhythms.

As a student from the mountains of Western North Carolina, I am acutely aware of the existing knowledge gaps in psychiatric treatment and access to mental health resources for underserved populations. My research and exposure to clinical populations has played a pivotal role in shaping my career aspirations, and I hope to attend a combined JD/PhD program after graduation, aiming to tangibly contribute to the field of mental health. Throughout my time at Mother Infant Research Studies, my mentor Pam Beiler MSW, LCSW, has encouraged me to explore my legal interests, and I have been able to delve deeper into the intersection of psychiatric intervention and mental health advocacy for mothers and infants. In the future, I hope to bridge the gap between neuroscience research and mental health law, particularly for underserved populations.



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