Brains. Mary Elizabeth Yeh finds them fascinating.
Ever since 6th grade, says the Creighton University College of Arts and Sciences student from Honolulu, Hawaii, she has been interested in gaining insight into this wildly complex organ. Though she calls this interest her “nerdy love for brains,” it really is much more than a passion for knowledge of the brain.
“My big, long-term goal is to be a neurosurgeon,” Yeh says. “Although I love learning about the cognitive aspects of the brain and how we process information, store memories, inhibit behavior and learn, I am most passionate about brain structures.”
Yeh is a student in one of the newest majors at Creighton University – neuroscience. She explains the field as one that “marries biology and psychology. You need different angles to get a better picture.”
Core courses cover philosophy, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and more to bring a well-rounded understanding of the brain.
To reach her goals, Yeh knew she should participate in research to get hands-on experience. So when she took a psychology class from Maya Khanna, PhD, as a sophomore, and learned about Khanna’s research on the effects of lead on adolescent brains, she jumped at the chance to get involved.
Khanna is a co-investigator on a 5-year, $5.9 million multi-state EPSCoR grant from the National Science Foundation. The ambitious program, known as DevCog (developmental chronometrics and genomics), aims to get collaborators working to map development of the adolescent brain. A lack of data about the factors that influence teenage brain development persists, partly due to the fact that kids don’t sit still, making commonly used technologies like fMRI less accurate.
Enter the magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine.
To most people, the MEG’s counterpart, the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagining) machine, may be more familiar. Essentially, the fMRI detects where brain activity is happening, but the MEG can also show when it occurs, allowing for a systems-level perspective on brain activity.
Khanna encouraged Yeh to apply for funding so she could take on a larger role in the project. Yeh earned the 2016 Jesuit Summer Undergraduate Research Award grant from Creighton’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (CURAS) to examine the relationship between lead and executive functioning test performance.
Yeh is continuing her work with Khanna this summer, and she hopes to gain a greater understanding of the brain.
Environmental justice questions, posed by the implications of children exposed to lead, nag at her as well.
“We need to address this situation in our community,” Yeh says. “There are national and international implications. Brain cells don’t care where you live or what nationality you are.”
She seeks to expand her keen understanding of the ethical dimensions of medicine, and she has the drive – and brain power – to do it.