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Stanford Rhodes Scholar heading to Oxford to study ways "the brain can go awry"

10515175_10152524157302002_5878205180193467577_o-001Undergraduate Emily Witt is one of two Stanford students selected to receive the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study abroad at Oxford next year; an announcement was made late last month.

Witt is a human biology major with a concentration in neuropathology, and she’s minoring in psychology. Her research experience thus far spans neuroscience, psychology, autoimmune pathology, and health in the developing world; and she says she’s interested in studying “any way that the brain or the nervous system can go awry.”

Witt, who plans to attend medical school after her scholarship tenure, works in the lab of  neurologist Lawrence Steinman, MD, PhD, which seeks to understand the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases, particularly multiple sclerosis. She’s using the lab to conduct research for her honors thesis, which focuses on the mechanisms of vitamin D in multiple sclerosis. She’s also involved with the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research and has participated in various studies related to autism and social cognition.

After hearing about this honor, I reached out to Witt with some questions about her work and her future plans:

How did you become interested in this field?

I’m interested in MS for two reasons. On a personal level, I have seen the devastating impact of the disease first-hand as my uncle has the progressive form of MS. Watching his condition worsen, and seeing the impact it has had on his life and the life of my aunt and cousins, inspired me to research this horrible disorder.

On an intellectual level, I’m fascinated by the interaction between the immune system and the brain. I believe it’s an incredibly important area of research as the immune system is a contributing factor to numerous neurological diseases, from multiple sclerosis and autism to depression.

What makes Oxford a particularly appealing place for you to study? Who or what do you hope to work with there?

I’m interested in working with two neuroscientists who are experimental psychologists; they’re actually bridging the gap between experimental psychology and neuroscience, which are the two degrees I’m hoping to pursue while at Oxford. One is Elaine Fox, who researches cognitive biases, and the other is Catherine Harmer, [who studies the] pharmacological aspects of depression and how they affect cognitive biases, particularly with respect to depression and anxiety.

Are you interested in contextual understandings of disease or degeneration – its social roots? How does interdisciplinary work fit into your imagining of what you’re doing and would like to do?

That’s what my primary motivation going forward is: kind of connecting what I see in everyday life and how neurological [diseases] manifest and what I understand about them biologically. So what I’m really interested in is combining a fundamental understanding of psychology with clinical applications of neuroscience… Because I do think that… there’s still a wide gap between studying the brain on a molecular and cellular level, and studying it on a behavioral level.

You’ve done research in Guatemala on chronic malnutrition. What is your experience traveling or living outside the U.S. and how has that impacted your trajectory?

I originally started traveling down to Central America in high school and then… to Belize and Panama and Nicaragua and Guatemala in college, all on various health trips and global humanitarian medicine trips. Panama was focusing on mobile health clinics, and Nicaragua more on community health and preventative health, and then this last trip in Guatemala was really on the social and economic determinants of health. And I’ve also studied abroad in Spain; I did a neurological internship there where I shadowed three neurologists who specialized specifically in multiple sclerosis.

 What is your sense of how you would like to be involved internationally after medical school?

Each of these trips have had a great impact on me. I’ve actually taken several courses at Stanford and met several professors… who are doctors and who are doing work in the developing world and promoting health, and I think wherever my future takes me in medicine I’ll continue to travel back down to Central America or around the world, to help those nations develop sustainable health solutions and really promote the advancement of their technical medical services. … They’re really lacking high-quality neurological care, or for a variety of diseases, mental health. They have great primary care doctors but they’re developing specialty care in these communities. That was one of the things we were discussing with my trip this summer.

Photo of Witt working in Guatemala this past summer courtesy of Emily Witt