Student Research Focus: Paula Eddleman probes the science of mental health

15th March 2016

By Steven Krolak

Motivated. That’s the first impression one has upon meeting Paula Eddleman, a junior from Elizabeth, Ind. majoring in psychology and recipient of a 2015 IU Southeast student research fellowship.

Motivated to learn, discover, succeed. And, fundamentally, motivated to care.

Eddleman is currently assisting Dr. Rodney Roosevelt, professor of psychology, in the Integrated Neural Science Lab on a long-term project to uncover the linkages between mind and body in stressful situations. More specifically, the role of that linkage in the production of alpha amylase and cortisol that are released when an individual – for example, an undergraduate during finals week – is severely stressed out.

For Eddleman, an interest in that linkage is the underlying theme of a professional and personal journey that has taken her around the country and back, to a program at IU Southeast that is helping her distill a brief lifetime of experience into a targeted career path.

Stress cases

A female test subject inserts her hand into a bucket of ice water. Over the next three minutes, she will receive a series of verbal cues that may influence her physiological state, which in turn may influence how she performs behavioral tasks.

Along the way, cortisol and alpha amylase (a marker for the hormone adrenaline) will be released.

Since the both are present in human saliva, a sample of her saliva will be taken, and the level of cortisol and alpha amylase found there will be measured and recorded.

The research team expects the measurements to reveal correlations between verbal cues and physiological responses, which could lead to an understanding of how to manipulate, i.e. control, stress. And all without resorting to invasive blood testing.

It’s a cutting edge project that will require taut adherence to traditional laboratory fundamentals.

In order to be ready to participate, Eddleman, as a junior researcher, has been learning to master those fundamentals as well as analytical techniques: capturing, pipetting and freezing saliva samples, computing and navigating through IBM’s SPSS software, interpreting statistical outputs of data, researching scientific findings using scholarly articles, and more.

A winding road

To Eddleman, the individual lab tasks and broader coursework she has enjoyed at IU Southeast is helping to incrementally piece together clues to a major mystery with strong personal relevance.

Members of Eddleman’s family have been living with schizophrenia, giving her an early and lasting window on this mental disease process and the impact it can have on a person, a family and a social environment.

But her path in pursuit of a psychology degree has not been a straight one. She began college nine years ago, thinking she knew her academic interests (psychology, philosophy), but realized at some point that she didn’t know herself very well, or her goals. She took three years off to travel the country and discover other cultures. It was during that time – sometimes not knowing where she would be working or sleeping next – that her goal ultimately came into view: to get to the bottom of schizophrenia.

“I want to see why dopamine levels are causing these diseases,” she said. “I want to understand it, and by truly understanding it, even at a molecular level, maybe I can be on the team that eventually cures it.”

She chose IU Southeast in part because it afforded the right blend of fields, including a pre-med track and soon a neuroscience degree program. She aims to ultimately earn a medical doctorate (M.D.) in psychiatry and a doctorate (Ph.D.) in clinical psychology. She hopes to be both doctor and researcher.

Between her current research and her overall scientific goals, Eddleman sees a direct correlation.

“I’m understanding hormones at a molecular level, finding out what happens in the human body when neurotransmitters are released,” she said. “That’s absolutely vital to my future career.”

Heart and soul

At IU Southeast, Eddleman also found the flexibility she needed as a nontraditional student balancing childcare with academics, and faculty as dedicated to the love of knowledge and discovery as she is.

“For me, the relationships I have been able to form with so many faculty members is thanks to smaller classroom sizes, and from professors who truly care about the academic achievement of the individuals that may pass through their door,” Eddleman said.

She credits Roosevelt with drawing her attention to grants and other funding opportunities that enable her to spend more of her time in the lab, and less time working to support herself and her studies.

“The more time you can devote to your research, the more dedicated you can be,” she said. “This translates into more time, clearer results, more participants – you can really pour your heart and soul into it.”

For his part, Roosevelt can’t overstate the value of research to student success, especially in the sciences.

“It lets the student experience first-hand the discovery process with all of its lurches, setbacks, lateral moves, disappointments, and the thrill of discovery when the unexpected occurs,” he said.

At IU Southeast, Roosevelt noted, there is the possibility for undergraduates to fill roles that graduate students occupy at larger institutions. And along with research comes the opportunity to present findings to the larger scientific community, both in university conferences and field-specific gatherings.

At the end of this month, Eddleman and her research partner, Ben Sebastian, will take part in the annual conference of the Southeast Psychological Association (SEPA), one of the largest psychological organizations in the country, in New Orleans, La.

They will present results from another ongoing initiative of the Integrated Neural Science Lab, an annual survey of fraternity men called the Life Assessment and Motivation Project (LAMP). This survey, administered by Roosevelt for several years to Lambda Chi Alpha chapters around the country, includes psychological scales related to behaviors such as alcohol abuse and hazing, and looks at the relative merits of educational programming versus prohibitive interventions. Eddleman has been part of the team that has analyzed the results of the survey and discovered trends across all chapters throughout the U.S.

For Roosevelt, the skills and experience gained through working in the lab at IU Southeast will make Eddleman, Sebastian and other assistants desirable colleagues for research teams at the next step in their academic ascent.

“They are not going to have to worry about being accepted into high-quality graduate school programs or medical school,” he said. “They are going to have to figure out which offer to accept.”

In the meantime, Eddleman continues to grow in her field and take advantage of related campus programs, such being certified as a Mental Health First Aider, through a course that teaches individuals how to respond correctly to mental health emergencies.

“The more the science is spread around, the more that we as a society will move in a positive direction to help those who are mentally unable to help themselves,” she said.

Homepage photo: Paula Eddleman, research partner Ben Sebastian and the ice water bath or contact cold pressor.

TAGS: , , , , , , ,