This month we are spotlighting Anila D’Mello, who received a PhD in Behavior, Cognition, and Neuroscience, Department of Psychology.
Congratulations on being awarded the Outstanding Scholarship for graduate level work! Could you tell us about your research?
Yes! I am interested in a part of the brain called the cerebellum. This part of the brain was historically thought to be solely involved in motor function. However, it seems like it may play an important role in cognition as well. In particular, my dissertation focused on the role the cerebellum plays in typical and atypical language. We think that the cerebellum might be especially important for predicting what comes next during the course of speech production and comprehension. Predictive language functions are pretty important in conversation and reading and allow for increased speed and fluency. We use a variety of methods to examine the role of this brain structure in language including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and neuromodulation. FMRI allows us to visualize activation in the cerebellum while neuromodulation allows us to modulate cerebellar function to assess it’s role in language. For my dissertation, I applied what we know about the cerebellum and how it contributes to language to language-impaired populations such as individuals with autism spectrum disorders. For example, some work I completed for my Master’s thesis suggested that cerebellar structure might be abnormal in early language-delayed individuals with autism. We hypothesize (and try to test) that impaired cerebellar function might contribute to the early language delays we see in autism. The project has been incredibly interesting and rewarding. Many language researchers ignore the cerebellum all-together and so there is a lot to be done!
How did you become interested in this research?
I have always been interested in autism spectrum disorders. As an undergraduate at Georgetown University, I worked with young children with autism who were preverbal. These kids were very language delayed and some of them didn’t speak at all. For my graduate studies, I was interested in learning more about the neural basis of autism. It turns out that the cerebellum is one of the most consistent sites of abnormality in autism. That got me interested in Dr. Catherine Stoodley’s research. Dr. Stoodley studies the cognitive cerebellum and the contribution of the cerebellum to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia.
What has been the most challenging part of being a graduate student?
Quite honestly, being a graduate student has been incredibly rewarding. It’s an incredible opportunity to get to study something you are passionate about as a career. That said, it can be challenging to balance doing research while also writing it up for publication, presenting at conferences, and TAing. Sometimes things pile up! However, the faculty at AU (and my mentor, Dr. Stoodley) have been incredibly supportive. They make it easy to focus on the research while still getting everything else done.
What are your future plans?
I hope to continue to study the neural basis of language and neurodevelopmental disorders. Short-term, I’m leaving AU to start a post-doctoral position in Dr. John Gabrieli’s group at MIT. My future goals are to get additional training as a post-doctoral associate and eventually secure a faculty position where I can do research while teaching undergraduate and graduate students about neuroscience.