CURF: Aging Alone

Hello hello! I am Leonie, a junior majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Economics. A fun fact about me is that I was born here in the U.S. but have moved around the world a bunch and completed high school in Tokyo, Japan.

This semester, I have been awarded the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship to study social isolation, loneliness, and depression in older adults. I work in the Geriatric Psychiatry Neuroimaging (GPN) lab under Dr. Howard Aizenstein, MD, PhD, with a great team of researchers in all levels of academia – from newborn undergraduates to decorated Professors – studying the many different facets of both normal and abnormal aging. Currently I assist on multiple projects for which I do data cleaning and skull stripping (a method for analyzing MRIs). However, I am also being trained for our new upcoming project, which is still in the process of being planned and approved, that focuses on social isolation in the elderly. Especially during the pandemic, many of us have experienced (either first-hand or second-hand) the effects of isolation and loneliness. In addition, with our older population growing in size (and expected to continue to do so), studying those effects in that demographic is increasingly important.

I personally became interested in this topic when I worked in a geriatric hospital ward in Germany from June to October 2020. Because of COVID, visitors were not allowed, so I was one of the few in-person contacts my patients had, and it became clear to me how truly essential human connection is to our wellbeing. Our project’s goal is to explore the nature of that relationship and, if successful, our results have the potential not only to inform but to help pave a better future for older adults in this society.

Research with the GPN team has been essential to my professional development. It is my aspiration to become a doctor and, to be honest, I hardly enjoyed most research I participated in. However, the clinical aspect of the research that GPN conducts, as well as the supportive learning environment, has not only persuaded but absolutely enamored me with the work that I do. It is because of this that I believe that research is for everyone: you just have to find the right fit. The CURF is a great way to have support in that search, and I can’t wait to share the rest of my journey with you.

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