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.

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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.

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.

Purpose:
•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.