I aim to enhance our understanding of the diverse origins and manifestations of autism within populations that have traditionally received limited attention in autism research. My research delves into distinct autism subtypes, considering the presence of co-occurring psychiatric conditions like anxiety disorders, and examines how these differences are manifested in the developing brains of autistic children and adolescents.
I grew up in Fairfax, Virginia where I attended Fairfax High School. Growing up near Mason's Fairfax campus allowed me the privilege of witnessing the university's remarkable expansion over time and its unwavering dedication to academic excellence for individuals from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. Mason serves as a perfect example of progress in fostering educational access and promoting scientific breakthroughs for those who have otherwise been marginalized in higher education.
Dr. Allison Jack played a pivotal role in shaping my interest in neuroscience and autism research. I first joined her lab with a very limited understanding of autism and neurodivergence. Her focus and meticulous attention to detail in lab meetings left a lasting impression on me, but it wasn’t until I took her autism seminar class that I became inspired to follow her footsteps and strive to help better support and uplift individuals that have historically been left out of social participation and educational opportunities. Notably, her attentiveness to each student's unique support and sensory requirements, and her genuine efforts to address them promptly, truly set her apart as an extraordinary professor and human being.
Dr. Goldie McQuaid, a prominent member of Dr. Jack’s lab, has been instrumental in catalyzing my aspirations for a career in academic research. Dr. McQuaid brings to the lab robust knowledge in a multitude of areas such as language development, linguistics, and cognitive and developmental neuroscience. Her unique interdisciplinary background along with her rigorous dedication to developing novel research paradigms often spark intellectually stimulating discussions that consistently ignite excitement among lab members, spurring us on to pursue impactful scientific discoveries. Dr. McQuaid takes the time to really understand my research goals, assisting me in refining the questions I seek to explore. Even before I fully believed in my own capabilities, she steadfastly believed in me. Her exceptional mentorship style and research expertise shine through her remarkable capacity for patience and empathy, embracing individuals across all neurotypes.
Dr. Siddhartha Sikdar is the director of the National Research Training (NRT) program funded through the National Science Foundation (NSF) which I was a part of this past academic year. Under Dr. Sikdar's mentorship, this program significantly strengthened my skills in data science, effective communication with broad and diverse audiences, and the production of research that directly benefits the communities most impacted by the outcomes of our work.
Drs. Jack, McQuaid, and Sikdar lead their profession with utmost compassion and dignity, with a devoted dedication to helping individuals from underserved and under-voiced communities live their best possible life. The bioengineering and psychology departments at Mason are truly privileged to have professors of such exceptional caliber representing their faculty.
I plan to enter my Ph.D. program at the University of California, Davis in the fall of 2023, and upon successful completion of my degree program, ultimately obtain a faculty position at a high research activity R1 institution incorporating methods learned from my mentors here at Mason. I have my sights set on developing my own interdisciplinary lab as a Principal Investigator (PI) and selectively recruiting autistic and/or neurodivergent graduate students for training in professional careers investigating possible neural correlates of a wide array of neurodevelopmental conditions including autism using MRI methods and other neuroimaging techniques.
I intend to expand my community-based research interests into my doctoral studies and in my professional career as a professor and advocate of inclusion for research participation among individuals who have historically been left out of research. Further training in this type of community-based research design will ultimately transform the way we recruit populations and draw inferences about neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative conditions that are respectfully representative of all populations.
In the fall, I will be attending the University of California, Davis Ph.D. program in Psychology, where I will be working at the Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MIND) Institute. I will use this funding support from the Dean’s Challenge Award to help develop an advisory board at UC Davis that includes all persons affected by autism. This advisory board will consist of parents of autistic children, autistic participants currently enrolled in ongoing studies at the MIND institute, as well as autistic and/or neurodivergent UC Davis students. It is my hope that developing this board will support the growth of answering research questions that are most meaningful to and benefit all autistic populations.