Some students enroll at Hamilton undecided as to their academic path; others know exactly what track they want to pursue. Olivia Surgent ’17 is in the latter group. She’s been interested in neuroscience, specifically Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), since middle school when she began teaching swim lessons to children on the spectrum. This summer Surgent is advancing on that path as an intern at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior in Madison, Wisc. The center specializes in understanding neurological functions of children with developmental disorders such as ASD.
Surgent and her advisor Dr. Brittany Travers are looking at the effects of improved motor function on neural networks in young adults with ASD and Surgent is confident she’s found her niche. “When I arrived at Hamilton and began to take neuroscience classes, I started applying what I was learning to my experiences with children on the spectrum. Soon, I became fascinated with the neurobiological functioning of the autistic brain,” she explained. “When I learned about the Waisman Center and its focus, I knew it was the place for me.”
A neuroscience concentrator, Surgent explained her work this summer. “Our research looks specifically at the white matter tracts in the brainstem of children with ASD before and after they undergo a six-week intensive balance training program,” she said. They assess Diffusion Tensor Imagine (DTI) brain scans. DTI is similar to MRI but tracks water diffusion throughout the brain. “Because balance is imperative to daily functioning and an indicator of ASD severity we’re hoping that improvements in balance will show improvements in ASD symptoms,” Surgent noted.
By comparing the brain maps (tractograms) from before and after balance training, researchers can get a better idea of what changes may be occurring in the brain to cause the improvements in both balance and ASD symptoms. They hope to establish a connection between motor function and ASD symptom severity that’s related to specific white matter tract atypicalities found in individuals with ASD. Surgent said that such a finding could have major influence over ASD diagnoses and therapy programs.
At Hamilton Surgent is founder/president of HAAND (Hamilton Advocates for Autism and Neurodiversity) which sponsors a collaborative program with the Kelberman Center, a non-profit organization founded by Dr. Michael Kelberman ’80 that provides state-of-the-art programs and services to individuals with ASD. HAAND brings children with ASD to campus for a weekly social skill development program led by student volunteers. The club has also hosted two successful Walk for Autism events on campus.
Getting to know the children who attend HAAND and learning more about this population has been rewarding, Surgent said.“ HAAND has been a great way to stay motivated to learn more about ASD. Being able to think about the enthusiastic, energetic, and uniquely wonderful kids who attend our program that are affected by this disorder and how much our work could help them in the future motivates me to continue,” she remarked.
Last summer Surgent worked in Dr. Chiye Aoki’s neurochemistry lab at NYU as part of an undergraduate research program sponsored by the NSF. Surgent researched a potential genetic influence on stress vulnerability and anxiety and utilized electron microscopic techniques to analyze brain tissue of mice affected by the stress inducing genetic mutation.
Although this research experience didn’t directly relate to her passion for ASD research, Surgent said it provided her with the invaluable information about neuroscience research in general and the research process. Recently, her findings from last summer have been accepted for publication in Cerebral Cortex, a neuroscience journal.
After Hamilton graduation Surgent will continue down the course she set in middle school. She wants to begin a Ph.D. program in neuroscience that will allow her to conduct her own research into the neurobiological basis of ASD. “I hope to use the strong knowledge base I’ve developed at Hamilton as well as at the Waisman Center as a foundation for my own neuroscientific research,” she concluded.