My singular focus on promoting and optimizing vulnerable children's cognitive development has been at the forefront of my career since my first job at an early childhood education center in high school. As an undergraduate, I joined the scientific community as a pediatric research assistant. My graduate research utilized high-density electroencephalography (EEG) and neuropsychological assessments to identify brain-based markers in children with obstructive sleep apnea that could indicate which children might experience the most significant benefit from surgical intervention. My experiences as a medical student in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) confirmed my vocation to work with our smallest and most fragile patients.
Prematurity impacts 1 in 10 children born in the United States. Some of these tiny infants spend months in the NICU before going home. With advances in neonatal care, smaller and sicker infants are now surviving. However, once home, the challenges these infants face are far from over. Premature infants can have significant difficulty meeting developmental milestones, such as walking and talking. Parents often feel shocked and overwhelmed as they leave the NICU with their premature infant and a list of things their child might never be able to do.
Despite all the challenges these premature children face, they often find ways to adapt and do exceptionally well. This resilience is not well understood. Unlocking the secrets of how the premature brain can adapt in response to the insults of prematurity is key to targeting treatments and improving outcomes. My research aims to help doctors and scientists support parents in learning how to give their children the best possible chance.
I believe that the developing preterm brain is innovative. It finds ways to overcome by developing unique alternate networks. I study these developing networks using brain imaging techniques synergistically to make a comprehensive map of the brain. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) shows us the physical structure of the brain and changes in blood flow in response to specific tasks. However, it cannot show us the electrical activity resulting from neurons (brain cells). Magnetoencephalography (MEG) can show us these neuronal connections and brain responses at a sub-millisecond level. By combining MEG with MRI, I look at whole-brain networks of structure and function and relate them to observable behavior and long-term outcomes. This method of study can advance our knowledge of the dynamics of the developing brain and its interaction with the environment while reframing the discussion of prematurity to one of resiliency and actionable intervention. With this information, we can dispel fear and provide hope, changing the outcome for over 14 million children born preterm worldwide each year and opening new avenues of discovery with multimodal neuroimaging studies to map the brain over the entire lifespan.
My work has been funded by awards from the Cincinnati Children's Research Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.