Jesus Saavedra's Summer 2018 SPUR Reflection

Jesus Saavedra headshotWorking in Dr. Bettina Casad’s Social Neuroscience Lab during my 2-month summer internship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) was an incredibly rewarding and educational experience for me. Not only was I able to delve deeper into the field of Social Neuroscience, an area of research I find very interesting and hope to pursue, but I also had the opportunity to learn about the processes behind cleaning and analyzing neurophysiological data as I engaged with various research studies conducted in the lab throughout the summer.

My mentor, Dr. Casad, was perhaps the main proponent for my great summer experience. While my application for SPSP’s SPUR program was the result of a recommendation from a professor at my current university, my main motivation for applying to Dr. Casad’s lab was a desire to learn about conducting research within the field of neuroscience using equipment that was unavailable to me at my university. Upon hearing this, Dr. Casad wasted no time in informing me about Washington University’s Summer Program of Imaging in Neuroscience (SPIN) and helping me apply so I could attend their weekly lecture series on their medical campus neighboring UMSL in between our lab meetings and running study participants. Dr. Casad even set up meetings between a few of her colleagues and I in order to help me learn some of the facets of neuroscience research not explored within her lab. Additionally, I was assigned to work on a study which utilized EEG measures alongside EKG, EOG, and impedance cardiography in order to understand how women’s motivation to confront prejudice influences physiological markers for long-term health outcomes and cognitive performance following a potentially sexist online interaction.

Understanding what these physiological markers were, why they were important, and how to calculate each one from what originally looked like a random mess of wavelengths, was overwhelming to me at first. However, with the help of Zachary Petzel, Dr. Casad’s senior graduate student, I was able learn and operate software like BrainVision Analyzer, EEGLab, and SPM for fMRI and EEG data as well as Mindware for physiological data. Zachary even indulged my curiosity for learning about stimulus presentation software used in neuroscience research as he held workshops teaching me about E-Prime software and allowing me to assist with his dissertation research which relied heavily on stimulus presentation. I hope to follow his incredible penchant for teaching others as I plan to teach what I have learned from him to students at my current university who may have the same desire to learn these concepts without having access to the relevant equipment as I did.

After learning most of these concepts, Dr. Casad encouraged me to present what I had learned from the SPIN program as well as my meeting with Carmen Velez, a researcher working for the Missouri Institute of Mental Health under the instruction of the Director of Brain Imaging, David Tate. Although I felt wholly unprepared to teach graduate students anything, the realization that I now understood the underlying concepts behind processes like EEG, MRI and DTI made for a great experience in presenting these concepts. Dr. Casad’s support also led me to perform my own analyses on the data we had gathered from the study I had been assigned to in hopes of presenting my findings as a poster in SPSP’s upcoming conference.

Getting to know Dr. Casad and her students over the course of my 2-month stay, made for a bittersweet departure on my last day in Missouri when Dr. Casad held a paint-night with all of our lab’s members as a way to send me off. Not only will I treasure the colorful brain portrait I took home with me, but I will always be grateful to SPSP, Dr. Casad, Zachary Petzel, and the rest of the UMSL Social Neuroscience Lab for allowing me this remarkable experience I would not have had otherwise. Thank you all so much.