Exploring Pediatric Research
How can parents of infants notice the early markers for autism? Can early identification lead to better care down the road?
By Halley Le '25
These are the questions that Gianna Rodriguez ’23, helped to research this summer, through in a neuroscience research project at Puglia Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory, a National Geographic-featured research lab at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlesville, VA.
Rodriguez ’23, who is known and loved on campus as the President of Student Educational Policies Committee, is a seventh term senior studying Biology and Writing.
“I concentrated on cellular biology,” explained Rodriguez. “However, I am fascinated by Neuroscience, and I dove into exploring this interest.”
This summer, Rodriguez worked for the Puglia Developmental Neuroscience Laboratory, a National Geographic-featured research lab at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlesville, VA.
Electroencephalogram (EEG) is a test that measures electrical activity in the brain using small electrodes attached to the scalp. Rodriguez’s research studies the EEG and eye movements in infants as markers for early diagnosis of autism.
“As part of my day to day work, I recorded footage of infants interacting with different objects and situations, collected their brain scans, and analyzed hundreds of hours of observation using R and MATLAB,” said Gianna. “Currently, autism can only be diagnosed at around 16 months old. However, my data suggested the diagnostic age could be slashed in half to as early as 8 months!”
As an aspiring medical student, Rodriguez recognized the importance of a research experience to her future career orientation. Over the winter of junior year, she applied to several summer programs that provide opportunities and funding for undergraduate students to participate in hands-on research at national universities. The Summer Research Internship Program (SRIP) at UVA was at the top of her list.
“SRIP at UVA is known for being selective and competitive,” said Rodriguez. “But I still want a shot at my ‘dream’ program. So I put my best foot forward to apply.”
Rodriguez tried to capture her passion for science, enthusiasm, and sincerity in her personal statement. She even got faculty members John Bullock, Amie McClellan, and Blake Jones to help her review the essay to make sure that she fully communicated her interests and fit for the program. Her personal statement made a strong impression, as Dr. Halme, the director of SRIP, later revealed to her that [the essay] pushed her application over the edge.
As a first time researcher, Rodriguez remarked the experience was brand new, challenging, and transformative.
“I have never imagined myself working in pediatrics,” Rodriguez recalls. “Those who know me know that I’m not a children person. But during one of our EEG scan sessions, the baby we work with was crying non-stop, and instinctively, I reached for her. And she immediately grabbed my hand. She held on to [my hands] until the end of the session. It was a magical moment!”
Besides her new-found interest in pediatrics, Rodriguez also encountered a challenging task. As a self-described “STEM geek,” she had taken classes in virtually every discipline within the Science and Math departments, except for computer science. However, her research required heavy data analysis with computer programming.
“Dr. Meghan Puglia, my mentor at UVA, is an expert in [Developmental Neuroscience]. She had years of experience in the field and had even developed her own R and MATLAB libraries for data analysis,” said Rodriguez, reflecting her experience self-learning the two programming languages, and more, over the summer. “From her, I learned a lot of technical skills and also expert insights that are crucial to succeeding in our line of work.”
Aside from participating in data collection and analysis, Rodriguez also had the opportunity to attend lectures about frontline research, connect with experts in the fields of biological, health, and medicinal science, and presented her own research findings at an end-of-program symposium.
“[Attending lectures and connecting with so many professionals] had to be my favorite experience. Everyone was so welcoming and made it clear that I am part of the UVA family,” said Rodriguez. “The head of the program helped me move in, I got to have dinner with doctors and researchers in oncology. The head of the medical school invited me over for tea and shared about her experience in psychiatry—the speciality I hope to go into—and it was all because I was a member of the program and a budding scientist!”
Rodriguez presenting her research findings at the Summer Research Internship Program Symposium at UVA.
Rodriguez wrapped up her summer with a successful presentation in front of 50 fellow student researchers, graduate students, and research mentors, and a returning offer from the Puglia lab.
Rodriguez '23 (last row, second from the left) with her SRIP cohorts at UVA School of Medicine.
For a first time researcher from a small liberal art college, working with students from big universities can be intimidating, yet Rodriguez was truly surprised at how Bennington had prepared her for her success.
“It’s easy to lose sight of how rigorous and demanding Bennington is, but being at UVA reminded me how much I’ve matured and grown over my time here,” said Rodriguez.
As she comes back from an eventful summer, Rodriguez had the chance to reflect upon her time at Bennington. She enjoyed connecting with so many students on the same career path as herself; yet simultaneously, experiencing the social life at a big college campus has made her more appreciative of the Bennington culture.
“The sense of community and close-knit relationships Bennington facilitated helps me thrive as a scientist,” said Rodriguez. “Being able to go to class and have the intimacy, attention, and care of the same five people I’ve studied with for three years–under the guidance of professors I’ve come to love as mentors and heroes–is all I could have asked for in my education. At bigger universities, it is almost impossible to see three professors helping a student like how John, Blake, and Amie had helped me!”
As a senior, Rodriguez is excited to spend her final year working on her Advanced Works and preparing for an academic path after Bennington. Her research experience helped her reframe her career goals and open up many options she is interested in exploring.
“Short term, I’m looking to join a clinical research program that will allow me to build a more solid foundation before the long term goal, which is getting my MD-PhD with a focus in neuroscience,” said Rodriguez. “Even though Charlottesville was a bit of an adjustment, UVA was so very welcoming and immediately made it known I was welcome back. I'm tempted to make it a more permanent home as I progress in my career.”