DEI mentorship program at MIMH helps foster Megan Niehaus’ interest in neuroHIV
Megan Niehaus heard the name and knew instantly it was something she wanted to be part of.
“The International NeuroHIV Cure Consortium,” said Niehaus, a rising junior majoring in psychology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “I was like, ‘That’s insanely, monumentally important.’”
Established in 2014, the INHCC has facilitated scientific collaboration among investigators in a wide array of fields with research focused on HIV and its impact on the central nervous system, including patients acutely infected with the virus. Among the INHCC leadership team is Robert Paul, a professor of psychological sciences and the director of UMSL’s Missouri Institute of Mental Health.
Kate Votaw, the associate teaching professor and undergraduate research coordinator in UMSL’s Pierre Laclede Honors College, first brought the consortium to Niehaus’ attention. She told Niehaus that Paul and MIMH Lab Manager Julie Mannarino were seeking candidates for paid research internships, working with the consortium and learning about neuroscience as part of the INHCC Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summer Mentorship Program, which is supported by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Votaw encouraged Niehaus to apply, knowing it would fit well with her growing interest in neuropsychology.
“I also have connections to the LGBTQ community,” Niehaus said. “So I felt super strongly about it because homosexual men are definitely the No. 1 people who get infected by HIV.”
UMSL has a central role in the consortium and helped pilot the mentorship program last year along with IHNCC colleagues at Yale University, Weill Cornell Medical College and Oregon Health & Science University.
This summer, they added a fifth site with two students participating in the program at the U.S. Military HIV Research Program.
“It’s been challenging for the National Institutes of Health and other scientific funding agencies to really help change the demographic profiles of investigators,” Paul said. “The scientific community has not really moved very forward in that regard. Our thinking is that the challenges occur early in one’s career, not just when they finish their PhD. Particularly for individuals that are coming from a more diverse background, barriers get put up at a much younger age. That’s why this focus is reaching as far as we can – undergraduate level, junior college level, high school level – to get that portal open as best we can.”
MIMH hosted two high school students in the program’s inaugural year, and Mannarino and Paul selected Niehaus and Alfia Ansari, a pathobiology student transitioning from Gateway Community College to the University of Connecticut, to participate this summer after looking at their scientific experience, personal statements and recommendations from faculty members and interviewing them.
Niehaus and Ansari have been working virtually, learning about neuroscience, the biology of acute HIV infection, virology, immunology and neuroHIV, including neuroimaging, cognitive phenoyping, data science analytics.
Mannarino has helped develop the curriculum at both UMSL and the other sites alongside one of her colleagues from Yale.
The program officially kicked off this summer on June 27, but the students were given pre-packets to read through with background information on neuroHIV as well as readings and activities designed to get them up to speed on related topics.
They had two-hour cohort sessions starting in July that brought together mentees from all five sites via Zoom to hear from mentors about their research specialties as well as their educational and professional journeys. In one session, the mentees each took a Harvard implicit bias test and discussed the group’s results and what could be gleaned from them.
The mentees also met in smaller groups with Mannarino and her Yale colleague for two-hour periods two other days each week to fill in gaps in their learning, engage in professional development activities and talk through their individual research projects.
Additionally, the students were challenged to create a brain using any medium they chose – some using clay and other drawing pictures or building collages – to help spark their creativity.
“After the cohort sessions are over, we work in those last two weeks on their final projects,” Mannarino said. “Their projects are a bit variable. We don’t expect every single student to be at the same place with what they’re able to do, so we had students last year who were doing a brief literature search on PubMed. And then we had students who actually were advanced enough that they were able to do something with data.
“This year, the UMSL students crafted a research question, summarized scientific literature in support of their question and presented their findings to the group. We were very impressed at the level of their work from our mentees this year.”
Niehaus, who earned praise from mentors across all the participating sites for her work, took broader lessons from the experience.
“I think the ultimate underlying goal is having that mentorship, that support system,” Niehaus said. “It’s a support system to learn how to formulate good data, formulate good research questions and work with other people because that’s a lot of like, science right now. A lot of psychology right now is integrating data together and phenotyping, creating more of a bigger picture type of idea.”
They’re also learning to work collaboratively.
Niehaus, who grew up in Evansville, Indiana, wasn’t always sure she if she’d be able to fit into the the research community. She’s been interested in psychology since she was in elementary school and for a while thought she might become a therapist. But it wasn’t until she came to UMSL that she realized she could dive deeper into studying the brain and how it works.
“I guess growing up, you think, ‘Oh, I’ll never be that good at sciences,’” Niehaus said. “It seems so over your head, the language they use, just knowing a little bit about how competitive academia is. I just never thought I would be able to do it. Through UMSL, I’ve had some really cool teachers, some cool mentors who’ve helped me get these opportunities and really showed me that I am capable of this kind of stuff.”
She found her curiosity piqued the first time in an Introduction to Biology course her freshman year, and a biological psychology course she had last year added to the intrigue.
“I was just really drawn to the physical markers,” Niehaus said. “A lot of psychology is more surveys. There’s this type of person or this type of person. But when it comes to neurology, there’s more right answers. I like that. I like the hard facts behind it. That’s the part that I’m really drawn to.”
She’s found herself captivated again learning about the mechanisms of HIV and its impact on the brain.
Niehaus, who’s served in the Active Learning Assistant program and also helped supervise intramural sports during his time at UMSL, is hoping she’ll have more opportunities to participate in research and analysis with Paul and Mannarino after this summer.
“For my specific cohort, we’re poking at the idea of having a symposium sometime in December,” she said. “I would get to continue to work on that throughout the next few months on whatever research project we want to get into.”
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