My Faculty Mentors

Over the summer, my faculty mentors provided me with much-needed direction and moral support.  My primary mentor was Dr. David Bridgett, director of NIU’s Emotion Regulation and Temperament Laboratory, where my experiment and data analyses were carried out.  Because of the neurobiological aspects of my project, I also enlisted the help of Dr. Angela Grippo, who runs the Grippo Laboratory at NIU.  Dr. Bridgett’s lab is primarily interested in the development of self-regulation and temperament, whereas Dr. Grippo’s lab is more focused on the biochemical processes which underlie physical and psychological illness.

Early in the summer, Dr. Bridgett and I met to outline our goals.  We agreed on a list of 45 academic articles related to childhood trauma, stress, and self-regulation for me to read – five per week.  At first I was less than enthusiastic about this assignment, but I quickly realized how valuable this background information would be for my project.  As the summer progressed and my understanding of the relevant literature deepened, Dr. Bridgett and I met periodically to refine my hypotheses and steer my project toward completion.

My data was already being collected as part of an ongoing project in Dr. Bridgett’s lab, so a large portion of my summer was devoted to analyzing that Mentoring puzzledata.  When it came to the heart rate data, each heartbeat had to be manually double-checked, or “cleaned,” due to the presence of artifacts.  Thankfully, Dr. Grippo already had experience cleaning heart rate data collected from rodents in her lab.  After a brief tutorial from the professionals at MindWare, who supplied the equipment and software, my mentors and I devised a procedure for cleaning the data for my project, and I got to work.

Throughout the summer, I encountered plenty of obstacles and had to acquire a surprising number of new skills.  Whether I thought half of my data was missing, I had to learn a new computer program to conduct statistical tests, or I just needed a pep talk, my mentors were eager to show me what to do next.  With their help, I was able to stay on track while incorporating some of my other interests, such as mindfulness, into my project.  I would not have made it this far without them, and I look forward to continuing my work with Dr. Bridgett and Dr. Grippo as I complete my final year at NIU.

My Faculty Adviser

Having a great deal of involvement in both the NIU physics community and at Fermilab, it was only logical that assistant professor Dr. Eads serve as my faculty mentor for my summer research. A former NIU alumnus, Dr. Eads detectorcontributed to the DØ experiment at Fermilab and continued his work at FNAL by serving as the current NIU group leader for the Muon g-2 Experiment. His strong connection to the g-2 project granted me access to a myriad of resources exclusively available at Fermilab including the ability to attend g-2 meetings and seminars. As a pupil of Dr. Eads I was also able to collaborate with other FNAL physicists, NIU graduate students and NIU professors committed to the g-2 cause. While there are other NIU professors who also conduct research at Fermilab, Dr. Eads’ direct connection to the g-2 project, outstanding achievement in the field of particle physics and overall willingness to take me as his student made him the ideal adviser.

Apart from being very knowledgeable on the topic of particle physics research, Dr. Eads’ strong background in secondary science education also proved invaluable. The advantages of having an equally skilled scientist and teacher as a mentor immediately became apparent as Dr. Eads’ excellent debriefings on the g-2 project allowed me to quickly become integrated into the task at hand (an overwhelming endeavor considering my limited experience in particle physics research). Whether it was working in the lab or reading articles pertaining to the experiment, Dr. Eads was always available if I was in need of assistance. Professor Eads’ attributes as a patient instructor, attentive listener and strong motivator made my transition from physics student to aspiring physicist a pleasant journey and I find it difficult to fathom a better suited instructor. Having completed the summer portion of my involvement in the Muon g-2 Experiment, I cannot state my excitement to working another two semesters under the guidance of Dr. Eads.

Why I Care about Childhood Trauma

For almost ten years, my parents have provided a temporary (and occasionally permanent) home for children who, for some reason or another, cannot be cared for by their biological parents.  Many of my foster brothers and sisters have experienced severe childhood stress, which is a risk factor for many behavioral and emotional problems.  I often wonder what cognitive factors promote resilience to early traumatic experiences, and what interventions might be useful to cultivate normal development in these sad situations.

Over the past few years, I have been studying the mental processes that guide human thought and behavior more generally.  After all, even those of us who did not suffer childhood trauma often fail to exercise reason in the face of overpowering emotions or urges.  As I looked for factors that might give reason an edge, I came across the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness.  To cultivate mindfulness, a person learns to observe his or her thoughts, feelings, and sensations without reacting or clinging to them.  Rather than forming opinions and getting lost in a runaway train of thought, the person strives for a state of acceptance and equanimity that is sometimes referred to as “bare awareness” or “friendly awareness.”  A rapidly growing body of research indicates that mindfulness training of this sort promotes physical, psychological, and social well-being.childhood_trauma_color2

Many of the stress-reducing benefits of mindfulness are related to executive functions, a set of cognitive processes involved in attention and planning, which are utilized to practice mindfulness and are strengthened by the practice of mindfulness.  They include the flexibility to divert one’s mind away from stress-generating thoughts and toward more productive ones; the presence of mind to make healthy lifestyle choices; and the ability to evaluate one’s circumstances from multiple divergent perspectives.  It is easy to see how these faculties can reduce stress if they used properly, and there is plenty of research attesting to this fact.  My project investigates their influences on the long-term accumulation of stress that begins very early in life, known as allostatic load.

I hope to demonstrate that executive functions reduce the impact of early traumatic experiences on allostatic load.  If my results bear this out, it will likely mean that interventions focused on improving executive functions in early childhood can enhance resilience to early life stress, leading to better physical and psychological health outcomes.  Mindfulness training in preschool is currently being investigated, and it is a promising avenue for fostering executive functions early in life.  With more research into factors that protect against the harmful accumulation of stress, there will hopefully be widespread adoption of programs geared toward helping children develop resilience and live balanced, healthy lives.

Working with my faculty mentor

mcpuzzleWorking with Dr. Lucy Bilaver from the Public Health department has been wonderful thus far. She is not only a patient and informative mentor, but she also reaches out to me about other opportunities in my realm of interests and she supports me and the work I am doing as an undergraduate researcher. Dr. Bilaver has extended opportunities for me to volunteer at an event that is providing free screening for ASD, she has allowed me come with her to an Autism Task Force meeting in Chicago to network and meet potential interviewee’s, and she has also invited me to go to a conference called the “The Arc of Illinois ‘Living With Autism’ Conference” with her in September.

Meeting Dr. Bilaver for the first time at the end of spring semester, I knew it was going to be a good fit. She is talkative, elaborative, and open. Her background in research with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) fit exactly the kind of project I was looking to do. She helped me to shape my initial research objectives and topic, but she allowed me to be the primary creator. After creating my topic, Dr. Bilaver remained available to meet for questions and overviews and she was prompt at emailing. Dr. Bilaver assisted me in the understanding of the Pre-Elementary Educational Longitudinal Study data, setting up logistic regression models, and how to run regressions. She also assisted me in contacting and networking with professionals to interview and she also purchased me an audio recorder for this qualitative part of my research. Dr. Bilaver and I have met about every two weeks over the summer, and have emailed multiple times a week. Because this is my third year conducting research, Dr. Bilaver’s role as a mentor has been slightly more laid back, but when I do need help she is always there. Overall, working with Dr. Bilaver has been a great experience and I can’t wait to continue working with her throughout my senior year as my project is beginning to really take shape.