Discovering ASD

The reason I chose to research within the realm of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is primarily because I grew up with three relatives that are also diagnosed on the spectrum. Growing up with people with a disability like ASD is truly eye opening. You naturally learn to be an advocate and you learn to adapt to the way they think. I have two cousins, Cody and Jarred, who are on the Autism Spectrum, and my little sister, Michelle, is 13 years old and is also on the Autism Spectrum. My relationship with them, especially Michelle, has always guided me towards a career path in the medical field. I hope to be the best kind of professional, a professional who is passionate, diligent, and patient.  I aspire to be an occupational therapist (OT) because it unites all of my interests: ASD, people with disabilities, anatomy and physiology, and research. Not only does OT unite all of my interests, but it will allow me to work with a people that I am passionate about working with. My advocacy for people with disabilities will shine through in my professional work.ln4

People with ASD have difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication skills, social interactions, and they often adopt repetitive behaviors. ASD is a lifelong disability, it cannot be cured, but there are therapies and services that people with ASD can receive that help them to become an integral and involved part of society. In my research, I focus on these services, such as: occupational therapy, speech therapy, special education, developmental therapy, and behavioral therapy. The increase in the population of children diagnosed with ASD has been increasing rapidly since the 1990’s, and I think it is important to address this issue from a multidisciplinary perspective. My research interests are rooted deep, and I hope to continue to research ASD for the rest of my education and for the majority of my future career.


University Honors Summer Scholars Program Summer 2013

The University Honors Program is pleased to announce the second year of the University Honors Summer Scholars Program. The program began in the summer of 2012. In spring 2013, the Honors Committee will select two exceptional students as NIU’s second annual University Honors Summer Scholars.

•To recognize, reward, and honor the University Honors Program’s most outstanding students.
•To enable academically distinguished students to complete an outstanding University Honors Capstone project during their senior year.
•To provide University Honors students with the time, financial support, and faculty mentoring to pursue in-depth, meaningful research and artistry related to the University Honors Capstone in the summer between their junior and senior years; thereby allowing an outstanding project to be completed during the senior year. The summer research or artistry project is intended to create a solid foundation for the Honors Capstone.
•To highlight independent research and artistry undertaken by University Honors students at NIU.

Cognitive Moderators of the Cumulative Effects of Childhood Stress

Stressful experiences, especially in childhood, can have impacts that extend far into the future. Fortunately, we humans are endowed with a set of cognitive abilities known as executive function, which enables us to minimize the effects of stress. Executive function allows us to override many of our biological impulses and engage in goal-directed behavior. We all use executive function every day, for everything from playing video games to studying while our friends are out having fun or stopping ourselves before we finish off the whole bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. These abilities also help us organize our lives to avoid stressful situations, and to cope with stress when it inevitably occurs, for instance by framing a seemingly negative situation in a more neutral or positive light.

Evolution has provided us with the fight or flight response, which utilizes a biological pathway known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis,HPA to prepare us either to engage or flee from a perceived threat. This was extremely useful back in the days of running from bears and hunting deer with our bare hands, but we have come a long way since then. Nowadays, the fight or flight response can be quite a nuisance if it is triggered by something like an upcoming exam, to which neither fighting nor fleeing is a productive response. Nevertheless, this response is activated whenever the body perceives a threat, and this constant readjustment of the body’s state of arousal to meet environmental demands is called allostasis.

Repeated activation of the HPA axis can cause wear and tear on the body, which is known as allostatic load. This wear and tear is spread across many physiological systems, so it can be measured in a variety of ways. Researchers typically quantify allostatic load using some combination of stress hormone levels, blood pressure, heart rate variability, body mass index, and other potential biomarkers of cumulative stress.

Extreme or chronic stress can be particularly damaging early in life, since the body’s stress response is still developing. For example, if a child grows up in an abusive or unpredictable home environment, he or she will be primed to constantly be on guard and to react strongly to any perceived threat. This priming occurs in part because of an overactive HPA axis, which can harm many other physiological systems and set the stage for the further accumulation of stress later in life.

Although executive function has been shown to reduce the effects of stress, very little work has been done to determine its impact on allostatic load. It is allostaticalso unclear which components of executive function – including working memory, cognitive inhibition, and set shifting – are responsible for its stress-reducing effects. My project is an attempt to clarify this confusion. I will use questionnaires, cognitive assessments, and physiological data to measure childhood stress, allostatic load, and components of executive function in NIU undergraduate students. If I find that childhood stress contributes to allostatic load, I will use statistical analyses to determine which, if any, components of executive function buffer this effect.

Mixed Methods Study on Treatments/Services for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

lnAutism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Research within the field of ASD is booming, and for good reason—it is estimated to be as prevalent as 1 in 88 children now, and the number has been noticeably increasing since the 1970’s.

My two broad research questions are: What are the characteristics of children and families receiving different treatments for ASD? What are the facilitators of and barriers to effective treatment from the perspective of therapists serving young children with ASD? My research is focused on identifying what types of services are provided to different characteristics and demographics of children with ASD. The services I am focusing on are well researched and are considered evidence based practices, they include: occupational therapy, behavioral therapy/applied behavioral analysis, special education, and speech therapy.

This research will be done by completing a secondary data analysis on a portion of data called the Pre-Elementary Education Longitudinal Study (PEELS), and by also interviewing a dozen professionals that work with children with ASD on a frequent basis. The qualitative analysis will rely on the PEELS data set—this data set contains all major variables that I intend to focus on in my research. PEELS has data on over 3,000 children with disabilities, including around 450 with ASD. This data includes information on what services the children were provided with, demographics of the children, child assessments, family interviews, and other questionnaires. The Institute of Education Sciences has a data set called Powerstats that is publically available, which provides users with access to a portion of data from the entire PEELS data set. For my project, I will complete both a univariate and multivariate logistic regression of the Powerstats data. In conjunction with the Powerstats analysis, I will also conduct qualitative research via interviews with services providers that work with children who have ASD. I will be contacting different outpatient therapy clinics, hospitals, schools, and referral agencies in the Northern Illinois region to conduct semi-structured interviews with professionals that work with children who have ASD. I am going to complete extensive interviews with a minimum of twelve professionals throughout the summer, three from each of the following four fields: occupational therapy, speech language therapy, behavioral therapy/applied behavioral analysis, and special education. Professionals who decide to participate in the research project will be asked a series open ended questions designed to elicit their perspective on the types of services provided to children with ASD and the barriers and facilitators of service effectiveness.

The combination of a data analysis and an interview analysis will hopefully make my research both unique and influential to the wider autism community. Because early intervention strategies are so crucial for the development of these children, my hopes is that it will be beneficial to both professionals working with children with ASD and for parents of children with ASD.ln3

The Muon G-2 Experiment

Muon-10-ringLeading the nation in advanced particle physics research, it is only natural that the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory will be conducting the Muon g-2 Experiment as their next major undertaking. Before delving into my proposed involvement of such a world-class venture, I believe that it would be best to share a bit of my knowledge regarding the details of the experiment itself.
Picking up were Brookhaven Laboratory left off, the goal of the g-2 experiment is to re-measure the g-factor (gyromagnetic factor or spin) of a muon (subatomic particle similar to an electron but much heavier), except to a greater level of precision. The reason for this is that the previous results from the Brookhaven investigation revealed that the experimental value of the muon’s g-factor differed from the theoretical value by 3σ (standard deviations). Such an outcome caused a great deal of excitement among the physics community as it proposed that the fluctuations in the muon’s spin could be caused by other, yet to be discovered, subatomic particles. If all goes to plan, Fermilab’s efforts will either debunk the previous findings as an erroneous anomaly, or will provide the 5σ necessary to confirm a scientific discovery, thus opening a myriad of questions regarding our understanding of the esoteric universe that surrounds us.
My Summer Scholars Capstone would contribute to the Muon g-2 Experiment by having me independently create and analyze a straw-tube test module that would serve as the primary design for the detector used at Fermilab. Preoccupying myself in the construction stage, I would work with materials provided by Fermilab to optimize several components of the detector. The first aspect would require me to familiarize myself with a single straw-tube (gas filled mylar tube with a sensitive filament inside) and carefully inspect its components. After studying the construction of a single detector tube, I would then proceed to designing a mass production assembly line that would provide the tubes for the g-2 experiment. Upon the completion of this task, that could take anywhere from three to four weeks, I would then continue on to building a scale model of the detector and run several tests focusing on the optimization of data collection. This part of the experiment would preoccupy the majority of my time as testing various straw-tube layouts, working with advanced computer simulation programs, analyzing gathered data, speaking at public events concerning the Muon g-2 event, as well as attending informational seminars at Fermilab will provide with an excellent opportunity to immerse myself in the high energy particle physics scene taking place at NIU, Fermilab, and the worldwide physics community.