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Using imaging genetics as a tool in understanding psychopathology
This post is part of a series of blog posts written by incoming and second-year graduate students in the Early Graduate Fellowship Mentoring Program. Students were asked to provide a brief description of their research interests and how they came to those interests.
I am interested in investigating whether genetic variations and neural circuitry patterns correlate with broad symptoms of psychopathology. I will research this topic by relating variation in candidate genes and neural circuitry, as measured by resting state fMRI, in a sample of individuals from across the spectrum of psychopathology, including healthy controls and individuals with internalizing and externalizing symptoms. My first research aim is to assess whether risk for psychopathology is associated with specific genetic variation and distinct patterns in known neural networks. My second research aim is to assess whether risk for internalizing versus externalizing symptoms is associated with specific genetic variation and distinct patterns in known neural networks. Answering these questions will enhance our understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying risk for psychopathology in general, as well as for internalizing and externalizing symptoms.
Although my research path seems direct when looking at my CV, I actually stumbled into my interest in imaging genetics accidentally. To begin, I worked in an affective neuroscience lab as an undergrad at Vanderbilt University. Through this experience I became fascinated by using research as a tool to understand the intersection between the brain and behavior. At this point I knew I was interested in graduate school, but I felt I needed more time and experience before deciding on an area. I decided to spend two years at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism gaining additional research experience. I initially chose a lab at NIAAA because of its work with anxious inpatient individuals with alcohol dependence, but due to departmental procedures, I ended up being placed in a lab with a translational focus. This unanticipated twist of fate actually put me in the unique position of getting to work clinically with inpatient and outpatient individuals with alcohol use disorders, while at the same time exposing me to projects examining genetics, epigenetics, and neural circuitry. Over time, my interests in both the clinical and translational aspects of the lab grew. Under the direction of my NIAAA mentor, I began to teach myself the principles of psychiatric genetics. To further my understanding of the brain, I additionally took a Neuroanatomy class. Through these experiences, I found that I loved investigating the dysregulated biological mechanisms seen in addiction and negative affect. Indeed, I chose to pursue a doctorate in Clinical Psychology with my mentor at Rutgers to pursue this very line of questioning. I currently work in the Center of Alcohol Studies researching neural and physiological indices of resting state and cue-reactivity in alcohol-dependent individuals, marijuana-dependent individuals, and controls. When I first applied to work in the lab at Vanderbilt five years ago I would have never guessed that I would have ended up here, but I have truly enjoyed every minute of it.