To Infinity and Beyond!

Shepherd Pic

I can’t believe my summer at Shepherd Center is coming to an end.  It feels like I just got here and now it is time to head back to school.  I came to Atlanta hoping to find out if research was really my passion or if I just thought I wanted to pursue it.  I am so glad that Dr. Seel was willing to take me under his wing and give me a taste of what the research field is really like.  He was honest and straightforward.  I was told research isn’t easy and that I would have to really apply myself in order to be successful.  I watched, I listened and I learned.  Great news for me….I really really like research!  I am a methodical thinker who tends to be a perfectionist and that may come as a surprise to some because my personality is more go with the flow.    But in my work, I am a check it once, check it twice and make sure it is right, kinda gal. Especially, if I know that others are counting on me.  I have read more studies and analyzed more data than I would have ever imagined in one summer.  There were days when I thought my brain was going to explode.  This was the sort of work that required a quiet environment and it was at times quite solitary.  I have learned the difference between good studies and bad studies as well as the back stories behind the way journal articles are written and how the studies are conducted. Dr. Seel has taught me the importance of making sure that all of your data from all of your participants is accounted for as well as how to move forward even when things don’t seem to be going the way they were planned.  I learned how to tabulate every journal article, how to do a literature search and how to review those articles.  My writing skills were also put to a test.  I was asked to write journal reviews that will be used in our published article.  These reviews were originally intended for just the introduction of our journal article but as Dr. Seel read my reviews he realized that they could be used in the discussion section as well.  Being a student in classes where we read these articles all the time, I was overjoyed to think that someday a student somewhere might just be reading the words I have written.  I hope that someday I will be able to mentor a student as he has mentored me.

I am a senior in college….how did this happen???  I feel like I blinked and here I am 21 years old and thinking about going into the real world.  Scary, scary, scary!!!  I have plans….I want to go to graduate school and study the autobiographical memory recall in Alzheimer’s and stroke patients using music. Someday I hope to publish the results of research that I have done that will have major impact on people and the way they live.  I know this is a grand expectation of mine and I also know it will require much work, diligence, thought and enthusiasm.  I believe I am ready for the task ahead!  I want to explore new places, meet interesting people and discover the unknown.  Dickinson College, Shepherd Center and beyond…..look out world here I come!!!!  AMANDA BOULWARE: BRAIN ENTHUSIAST, KNOWLEDGE SEEKER, FUTURE SUCCESSFUL RESEARCHER!

My mom always said if I was a boy, my name was going to be GRANT

Grants (1)

Grant writing is something that I had no experience with until I applied for the summer internship notation program at Dickinson College last spring.  I found out that I could write a proposal and ask for money to help me pay for my internship expenses while I was living in Atlanta.  This was an excellent option considering that most internships are unpaid these days.  For the last three summers I have worked to help pay for my living expenses while also taking summer classes, so I knew that working a summer internship without getting paid would be extremely difficult.  Last summer I took a music class in the morning, worked as a research assistant at Siskin Children’s Institute without pay in the afternoons and then worked 6 p.m. -2:30 a.m. at Victoria’s Secret to make some cash.  Needless to say it was a very very busy summer.  Once I knew that I had been accepted as a research assistant at Shepherd Center this summer, I got into the mode of trying to figure out how to make it happen financially.  Interestingly, my mom follows Dickinson College on her Facebook and saw a notice about this grant opportunity.  She immediately called me to tell me the news and to suggest I get the specifics about the program.  It was not a simple ask for money and then I would get it.  I had to write a grant proposal, create a budget of all of my expenses, get a letter from Dr. Seel agreeing to allow me to complete my internship there, agree to let people know about my internship experience (HELLO BLOG!), as well as complete regular assignments and turn them in on time.

Little did I know that this skill was also a real world skill that researchers use on a regular basis. Right now my supervisor, Dr. Seel is in the process of submitting a grant for a new study that they will be conducting at Shepherd Center. I have watched him this week prepare the grant proposal, stress over the budget as well as watch him check and double check everything before it is submitted. My grant experience is obviously on a much smaller scale, but I have learned that the details matter and are often the deciding factor of whether or not your grant is funded. Researchers live by grants! I am proud of the fact that I was able to get total funding for my proposal request. Thank you Dickinson, Shepherd Center and Dr. Seel for your support in helping me learn a lot this summer.

You May Be Strong But We Are Stronger

Teamwork

H.E. Luccock said, “No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” This idea of teamwork can be applied to the research field as well. While there are many components that go into making a research study run smoothly, this week I learned the importance of feedback and how to take those critiques and put them to use to make what you have written stronger. Last week I met with my boss and he gave me approval to write a portion of our journal article’s introduction. But after meeting with him about my writing we discovered that while my writing style was on par for college lab reports and graduate school, that it needed a bit of tweaking to make it journal article appropriate.

Dr. Seel and I worked together to refine my work and decided that some of my work could not only be used in the introduction but the discussion section as well. I was so excited. I know that my portion of the article may have needed some fine tuning but all of the writing that goes into the journal article goes through an intense editing period. This ensures that any biases that may have colored the study are brought to the forefront to enlighten readers that a study is not as creditable as it may appear.

Last week I met up with my friend May in Nashville. Her father is a neurologist at Vanderbilt and has helped me connect with some of his colleagues. May’s father was kind enough to reserve me tickets to a neurology conference. There are a four conferences a year, each about a different topic. Neurologists and others in the field come from all over to attend the conferences. While at the conference I met many people and learned the importance of networking. You never know who someone may know who could help you achieve your aspirations. I walked away from the conference with contact information about some research facilities that are conducting research in similar areas to what I am interested in as well as information about improvements in the field.

While I am still learning about the research field, the editing sessions I had with Dr. Seel have helped me acquire skills that I will use in the future and meeting up with my friend May’s father at the neurology conference helped introduce me to more people in the field I am interested in. As I said before, it takes teamwork to make something that is good become great and to reach it’s full potential. I believe that working with Dr. Seel at Shepherd Center has indeed helped me get one step closer to reaching my full potential.

I owe these great experiences to the Internship Grant I was awarded from Dickinson College. Without it I would not be able to accomplish as much as I have and learn so much about the field I am interested in. The assignments I was instructed to complete each week have allowed me to ask questions and learn things that without prompting I may have not be able to do.

“Almost There”

Tiana Almost There

I have always dreamed of being a writer but I never thought in a million years that this would be the way that I would become one. I came into my internship knowing that I would walk away with my name on a published scientific journal article but now that things are being set in motion, I cannot believe it. This Monday my boss told me that I could officially begin writing my portion of the journal article. I will be writing about scientific literature that includes information on different ways to measure patient’s effort (including problematic effort) in TBI rehab facilities, the factors related to sub-optimal effort or “treatment compliance”, the other factors that are related to effort or other rehabilitation populations, and what is still not researched that our study specifically looks at. This is a lot to process and I am very excited to think that I will be in charge of writing pages of this journal article and will be considered the co-author of a scientific journal article.

I was so excited to begin, but before I actually was able to start writing I had to go through the countless articles about our topic and pull out information that could help me address each of the points I was told to touch on. Then I was finally able to begin writing. Writing is a process that goes through dozens and dozens of revisions and because I want my part to be absolutely perfect I have been carefully thinking about each word and how it either assists or detracts from the underlying meaning of each sentence. I find it funny that while writing in third person and making sure that your writing conveys a separation from the study itself may seem difficult for some, as a science major it becomes necessity and almost the only way you know how to write. So writing this blog has actually been more difficult for me to write due to this change of tense. I am not used to using the word ‘I’ in my writing and haven’t used it in years. Some may find this odd but you would be surprised how often when writing this blog I have been tempted to change the ‘I’ to in or it, pretty much anything to not put myself in the picture. But this is the way we are taught to write to be separate from what is written.

Next week I am scheduled to meet with my boss to go over what I have written for my portion of the article. I cannot wait because I want to get his feedback, that way I can make it the best it can be. I have always used music to help me frame experiences in my life and I think that the song “Almost There” from Disney’s movie The Princess and the Frog has been my mantra for the summer. The lyrics say,

“…But I know exactly where I’m going
Getting closer and closer every day

And I’m almost there, I’m almost there
People down here think I’m crazy, but I don’t care
Trials and tribulations, I’ve had my share
There ain’t nothing gonna stop me now ‘cause I’m almost there.”

I feel that it illustrates my hard work to get to where I want to be as well as how things or opinions can get in the way of one’s success and aspirations. But just as Tiana reached her goal for running her own restaurant I am going to reach mine. And I know I am, “getting closer and closer every day.”  So here’s looking to the future!

“Almost There” – The Princess and the Frog

The Circle of Life: Giving Back!

Spinal cord

My mother is a geriatric social worker at our Jewish cultural center (JCC) and mentors a graduate student named Rebecca. My mom is considered the “Jewish Rock Star” of our community, is loved by all of her clients, and considered one of the best in her field in Chattanooga. Rebecca graduated from Southern University’s school of social work.  Rebecca was informed about a recent social work graduate who was in a terrible accident and that he suffered a spinal cord injury.   He was sent to Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga immediately  after the accident and has just been transferred to Shepherd Center. While I know little to no information about spinal cord injuries, I do know what it is like to have a family member go through this life-changing experience as well as the services provided by Shepherd. As I got word about Alex and his situation I knew that I had to introduce myself and let him and his family know that they had a friend who has gone through a similar circumstance.

Alex was in a bike accident that left him classified as a quadriplegic. Quadriplegia is a paralysis of all four limbs from the neck down. While this injury is significantly different from my sister’s head injury, the initial recovery is very similar. My mom emailed me his room information so I could visit him and his family one day after work. When I came into his room at Shepherd’s ICU floor it brought back memories of Hannah’s difficult time. His mother, Rose, was sitting in a chair looking exhausted and Alex was placed in a chair watching TV Land. I introduced myself and told them about my sister’s injury and how Shepherd center was crucial in her recovery and ultimately what has helped her be where she is today. They seemed relieved to know that someone had gone through a similar experience and that Shepherd was the place that helped. I didn’t want to ask too many questions about Alex’s injury, because I of all people know that right after the injury you are still in a state of shock and it is difficult to talk about it to others. However, Alex’s mother told me that he has been making great progress and wants to go to the pool for some of his therapy sessions. Although, until he is weened off of trach tube he won’t be able to go. His lungs are getting stronger and even though his injury usually would mean he should not able to move his legs and arms, I saw that he was moving his legs a little bit. I was very impressed with this because I didn’t think it was possible. My mom told me that it really depends on where the spinal cord injury is located and how severe it was. Alex was also very cognitively aware and paying attention to the conversation his mom and I were having even though he wasn’t actively participating. I told Alex and his mom about some of the opportunities Shepherd offers, like their book club that meets every month and their secret garden. Alex and his family are from Oregon and don’t know that many people so I left them with my name and number in case they wanted to get lunch or talk.

Looking back on this experience, it reminded me of how far Hannah has come and how much even now we take for granted. It seems so long ago since we were living day to day always questioning what the day would bring. However, in a month it will have been a year since her fall. Although since she had a seizure in January her full recovery is a little delayed. I have seen her rises and falls, but no one could have predicted that she would have been where she is today and my family and I owe it to Shepherd Center for all of the effort they contributed to Hannah’s recovery. While it is nice to give others hope by sharing her story, I think what I really took away from meeting Alex and his mom is not to take anything for granted.

“The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary”

Brain work

Thomas Alva Edison said that, “opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I find this to be a very poignant quote this week, because I have found out that working in research can be mentally taxing.  While work always takes time and effort to complete, many people may choose to avoid it when it gets harder.  I, however, am plowing forward in my desire to learn more about what it really takes to become a research scientist.  Details are extremely important and it takes a lot of focus to look for the right information.

This week I learned how to complete literature searches. A literature search is when someone compiles a list of sources that have similar results or information that could be helpful for the research being conducted for a study. It is essentially an annotated bibliography for the research field. At the beginning of the week my boss gave me a list of variables and factors to research in scientific journal articles in an effort to gather information that could assist us when writing our journal article. The research we have conducted involves finding factors or variables that predict the success or failure of the therapy used at the Shepherd Center for patients who have sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and ultimately predict their ability to enter their communities with the maximum level of independence given the lasting effects of the specific injury. Some of the factors include: depression, work alliance, self-awareness, engagement, effort, and motivation. I was assigned to find articles on patient’s effort and engagement in therapy sessions and how those factors play an integral part in a patient’s recovery.

After reading article after article, I found myself loosing interest in what I was reading. This I am sure is very common when you are reading scientific works about the same subject matter, especially when some of the articles can be at least 50 pages in length. I found this to be mentally taxing but in the long run very rewarding. I have learned how to break up the readings to ensure that I gain a grasp of what is important, what could have been carried out differently, to determine if it is a good source, what methods and measures were taken, and if it could be used as an asset to our study. These can all be seen as important skills to have in the research community because, what good is a journal article that cannot be understood by the targeted audience? While reading a scientific journal article may be hard for those who haven’t read something of that nature, at Dickinson College the science department makes a point to teach students how to understand what is meant through the “scientificese”. This term I have adapted from my Psych 201 class with Professor Barber. She always tried to help us strip away the scientific jargon that gets in the way of proving what was actually found in the study. Unless you have learned the ways of scientificese, it can be difficult to understand what you are reading.  I am truly glad that I have had the opportunity to learn this skill from Dr. Barber because without it I might not be able to complete the tasks asked of me in my internship.  Many people only think about the end results of research.  Those are the findings that we hear about on the news or in magazines.  What they don’t understand are the intricacies and hours of time spent on the details before anyone ever hears about the outcomes.  I am doing real work in a real research setting and at times it makes my own brain hurt!  I am hopeful that with the information I have gathered for Dr. Seele I will be able to further the study and help prove that the work at Shepherd does make a difference in the lives of its patients.

“Nuggets of Knowledge”

Puzzle

My father is the collector of trivia.  Our family calls these little known facts his “nuggets of knowledge”. These nuggets are bits of information that are enlightening and concern a wide array of subjects. One of my favorite nuggets of knowledge is that when an alligator is running after you, you should run zigzag because they are unable to make quick turns when they are chasing their prey and thus are unable to catch up to you. When dad tells us one of his nuggets of knowledge they often seem to come out of nowhere and rarely do we think they will ever come in handy in our lives, however, you never really know about that.  This may sound a bit absurd but, one time on a family vacation, my family actually put this nugget to use. We were staying in Florida for a few weeks and we decided to go to the beach.  Not unheard of when you go to Florida, right? Well it just so happened that while we were on our way into the water, we spotted a sign that read, “Alligators may appear from time to time, enter the water at your own risk.” Now we didn’t see an alligator that day but we were all running zigzag to the car after we saw that sign.  You may wonder how this relates to my current internship. You see, I have come to view all of my education about the research field to be “nuggets of knowledge” some of which may not seem to make sense to me now but will probably we incredibly useful in the future even though it may not serve my immediate needs but it will help me make adjustments for pursuing a career in research.

Being a part of the medical science research field is very competitive and difficult to excel in so this week I decided to sit down with my boss, Dr. Ron Seel to ask some questions about how someone new on the scene can achieve her goals and what types of careers are available for undergraduates. Some of the advice he gave me was pretty eye opening, interesting and new.

My conversation with Dr. Seel caused me to rethink some of my initial ideas or plans. For example, I asked him about what types of positions are typically available for recent graduates in the research field. His response was that for undergraduate students it is very hard to get employment but that research laboratories really only hire people with MDs and PhDs. He also told me that with a Master’s degree you can typically get a position as a grant manager, data manager, or be an editor of a journal. But if you have a PhD you could either work as a research coordinator or have a junior level position. When he told me about the duties of a research coordinator I realized that it was the role I wanted to have in the research field. A research coordinator typically manages one or more studies, writes reports for the IRB (international review board), creates participant consent forms, recruits participants for studies, is involved in data collection and entry, and helps with writing grants and literature reviews.

This answer has caused me to change my graduate school search because he said that those who only have completed a Master’s degree are typically not as involved in the research process. Originally, I was leaning towards competing my Master’s after graduating from Dickinson College and then possibly going back to school to get my PhD in the future. But now I have an understanding of what graduate program I should look at for the career I want to pursue.

While interviewing Dr. Seel, one of my questions led to a surprising response. I had recently found out about an experimental psychology program that is offered at some graduate schools I am currently looking at. When I asked him if he thought if it would be a good major for someone wanting to enter the research field or if he thought neuroscience or psychology would be better, his answer surprised me. He told me that by getting an experimental psychology degree would only inhibit my ability to have another job as a backup plan. While this makes sense, I originally thought that by getting my graduate degree in experimental psychology would help me gain the skills and training that is necessary for a career in the research field thus making it easier to get a job in the field. However, he thought differently. Dr. Seel proposed that it would be better to get a PhD in clinical psychology, that way one could work as a clinical psychologist on the side while also conducting research.

Now that Dr. Seel has given me advice about how I should go about getting the career I want, I have realized that I need to make some adjustments. For starters now I need to look at graduate programs that offer a PhD in Neuroscience or Psychology. He also told me that he looks for research experience in recent graduates’ resumes and to include a published journal article they have co-authored. Dr. Seel has agreed to let me co-author their upcoming journal article about the “bio-psycho-social” treatment that Shepherd Center has been involved in. I am excited about being able to co-author a published journal article and will definitely add it to my resume.

Now that I have received advice/ nuggets of knowledge about my career path and how I can achieve my goals I know how to make my dream of becoming a part of the research field a reality.

My First Week

You know those nights when you are so excited for tomorrow to begin that you can barely get any sleep? Well the night before I started work at the Shepherd Center was just like that.  The anticipation of working in the brain research lab at Shepherd Center is like a dream come true.  Let me give you some background information about Shepherd Center and how and why I chose to intern there.

Shepherd Center is a non-profit hospital specializing in treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with brain and spinal chord injuries in Atlanta, GA. Shepherd Center is a world renown rehabilitation center known for it’s patient centered care that encompasses the whole family.  My interest in Shepherd Center’s work, however, is not just based on professional excellence.  I must tell you, it is extremely personal to me. My family first heard about the facility when my sixteen year old sister, Hannah sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after falling down the stairs outside her high school at the beginning of her junior year last August. In a mere second, our family’s life changed forever. Interestingly, It just so happened that I have been studying at Dickinson College as a Neuroscience/ Psychology major.  It never occurred to me that my focus in college would come in handy for my immediate family. I found my self able to talk to the doctors about the severity of my sister’s injury as well as what precautions should be taken. I was the one that was explaining things to my parents as we all tried to grasp what had happened to my sister.  She sustained three brain bleeds and a significant skull fracture, a crushed ear drum and canal, leaving her unable to communicate, walk, eat, hear or even know her name or how old she was.  Our family was in panic mode.  We knew that we needed to find a place that would focus on helping her regain her independence and Shepherd Center is where we turned. While my sister was in the ICU, my mom was looking up rehabilitation facilities for teenagers with TBIs and Shepherd Center was listed as one of the highest ranked rehab facilities. Shepherd Center has two different facilities: Pathways and Shepherd Center. Shepherd is an acute care rehabilitation center with inpatient hospitalization from intensive care to a brain injury unit as well as a spinal cord unit.  Pathways is an outpatient facility that focuses on helping individuals with TBI gain skills to re-enter their communities.  We were told that only 10% of the people with Hannah’s type of injury recover at the rate she did and with the success she has had. My family owes my sister’s success and recovery to the people at Shepherd Center.  With their rehabilitation and guidance Hannah was able to re-enter school and complete her eleventh grade year with a few modifications.  She is scheduled to graduate on time next year.   While my mom stayed with Hannah, she made connections with an administrator , and told her that she had another daughter interested in pursuing a career in neuroscience research.  Mom made the first connection, but I had to do the rest.

So an interview, multiple emails, a grant application and a move to Atlanta for the summer and here I am, working as an intern for the place responsible for giving my sister the tools she needed to live a normal life. Needless to say, after I continually heard the amazing things Shepherd has done for those with brain and spinal chord injuries I knew I had to get involved with their research team. Now I’m sure you can tell why I was so excited to start working for them.

As soon as I walked into the building, I knew that I was going to enjoy working for them. I have realized that there is an aura in Shepherd, where everyone there is nothing but nice and helpful to you. Everywhere you go, you are met by smiles. They have a vision there, where everyone is involved in someone’s treatment and has an influential role in a patient’s recovery.  I learned very quickly that everyone there has the attitude of “whatever it takes” in order to help people feel comfortable and cared for.  This is true for the interns as well.  Everything is done in a very professional way.  Before I could actually start working there I had to complete volunteer paperwork, have a TB shot and have a meeting with Dr. Seel, my mentor, about what would be expected of me for the summer.  Luckily, he takes my interning very seriously and has already given me time out of his busy schedule.  I can hardly wait to dive in and start the real work!