Adolescence is a time when risky behaviors tend to emerge. Understanding what is going on in the brain when teens are making these decisions might lead to the development of interventions or ways to prevent these behaviors. In the Translational Research of Adolescent Change lab, a team led by Sarah Feldstein Ewing, Ph.D., works to answer difficult questions in the brain’s role in health risk behavior.
What are you working on now—and why does it matter?
We work with adolescents and use techniques like fMRI to understand what mechanisms in the brain might be involved in decision-making around whether or not to engage in behaviors that might be detrimental to one’s health – especially during adolescence. So, things like substance use or binge drinking. We’re also interested in looking at decision-making around risky sexual behavior — like choosing to have sex without condoms. These kinds of behavior tend to emerge during adolescence.
We’re trying to get a better sense of what’s going on when these decisions are being made and how that information can be used to prevent or intervene in those types of behaviors.
What’s been your most exciting moment in discovery?
A recent example is was when I finished successfully programming the scanner task for the large study we have going on. I had zero programming experience. My role included actually programming the task and working with collaborators to get a sense of how we might study this in the brain and what we need to be doing in the scanner to actually capture what we need to be capturing.
fMRI runs on the assumption that blood flow to different parts of the brain is a proxy for activation in that area of the brain. Using a fancy combination of math, physics, and well-planned output files our scanner task spits out, the neuroimaging staff maps out where there are changes in blood flow and what that might mean in terms of what a participant was doing in the scanner at any given time.
Seeing the scanner task finally turn into something that we could run on the 3T MRI at the Advanced Imaging Research Center was really exciting.
What’s your day-to-day life as a research associate look like?
What stands out most is how much variety there is, how different things can look day to day in terms of the types of things I get to be involved in. I think it’s unique to this career path.
In 2011 I joined Dr. Bonnie Nagel’s team as project coordinator and was really enthralled by the variety of the work. Three years later I joined the TRAC lab, under Dr. Feldstein Ewing, where I manage the entire research program. What my role looks like varies a lot. With the current project, I was pretty integral in fMRI task development, which is a novel part of that particular project. I also do project budgets – keeping an eye on the long-term game and also making sure we have enough money to staff the projects, any sort of real-time troubleshooting that we need along the way. Liaising with project staff and the Principal Investigators. Everything necessary to keep things moving forward.
In the Lab
In the Lab looks at the people in the laboratories — and clinics and communities — who help make OHSU such a vibrant research institution. In each post, researchers and clinician scientists describe their current work and answer the same three questions. Have someone you want to see featured? Email Strategic Communications.