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In my sophomore year of high school, a typical soccer game led to a potential concussion and a doctor’s appointment that altered the course of my life. The ER physician not only diagnosed my concussion but initiated my medical journey by diagnosing me with three autoimmune diseases. While my conditions initially seemed little more than diagnoses, they progressed rapidly. Suddenly, physical activities like walking up the stairs or daily tasks like going to class and doing assignments ranged from difficult to nearly impossible.

Taking six months off from school to recover gave me plenty of time not only to learn how to cope with my new reality but also to delve into the world of research to try to understand how myriad factors can contribute to a person’s development. I was determined to not let my circumstances define my capabilities and aspired to understand physiology and psychology to help others dealing with chronic health issues. The specific origins and progressions of my diseases were mysteries to both myself and the broader medical community. The lack of answers to questions that were suddenly so central to my life sparked a deep curiosity about how health outcomes are influenced by one’s environment and genetics.

Coming to UNC has focused my passion for understanding health outcomes on psychological research. Courses like developmental psychology impressed upon me the importance of the early developmental environment on psychological well-being and life-long health. Other classes, like clinical psychology, introduced me to the research, development, and implementation of effective interventions.

As a research assistant for the Institute of Trauma Recovery, I developed my understanding of research and focused my interests on the impacts of stress. Assisting on a clinical trial examining the effects of intervention on chronic pain after motor-vehicle car crashes gave me the opportunity to practice professionalism in participant interactions, actively shape aspects of our clinical trials, and engage with quantitative data and different psychological assessment scales. Supporting victims of trauma through recovery and intervention research has been invaluable both for my personal growth and for the impact I have been allowed to make. These experiences motivated me to pursue more deeper research engagements within the Gil Internship.

As a Gil intern at the Neurocognition and Imaging Research Lab (NIRL), I have had the honor of learning under Dr. Belger, whose lab focuses on functional anatomy and how neural circuitry breakdown is related to the development of neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. My roles in the lab have been diverse: I’ve conducted numerous literature reviews, supported the Pathways to Adolescent Success Study (PASS) and the Psychosis Risk Outcomes Network (PRONET) study, assisted with MRI and fMRI scannings, gathered body measurements and biological data, and run EEGs.

As part of my role in the lab, I am also running a pilot study on executive function and decision making to examine how perceptual load, emotional interference, color salience, and anxiety relate to attention and reaction time. The goal of this study is to investigate two commonly used emotional face processing tasks, the behavioral effects of anxiety in emotional interference, and to provide insight into how color affects information salience. The data collected from this study will have both clinical and cognitive implications — providing insight into how psychological pathology might impact decision making and attention, and how interference and perceptual load impact executive functioning and cognitive tunneling.

In my new role as primary investigator, I have learned to write an IRB-approved research study, recruit participants, run behavioral tasks, walk participants through the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) assessment, analyze STAI results and attentional data, among other skills requisite to psychological research. As I continue my journey at NIRL this semester, I hope to successfully complete my pilot study and learn more about using electrophysiological and brain-imaging methods.

Looking towards my last year at UNC as a rising senior, I am excited to continue my research journey through a senior honors thesis at NIRL, expanding upon the pilot study I ran this semester. I hope to examine behavioral and physiological correlates of attentional and emotional interaction in individuals experiencing acute stress. My goal is for this research to contextualize information processing in individuals experiencing stress and provide insight into future clinical interventions.

I am endlessly grateful to my research mentor Dr. Belger, all the amazing people in NIRL, Dr. Buzinski and Emily Dolegowski with the Gil Internship Program, and everyone else who has supported and guided me through my journey thus far. I have learned an incredible amount in the last few months and am excited to continue my exploration of stress research and to support patient health through new intervention strategies.

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