Newsletter Article

Research Fellow Seeks to Calm Memories After Trauma

Photo: Libby Marks
Photo: Libby Marks

Libby Marks, a fourth year Adult Clinical student with Lori Zoellner, received a grant from The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) for her project "Reducing Intrusions of Real-World Stimuli via Memory Reconsolidation." A brief introduction to the National Research Service Award (NRSA) has been provided in a previous article. Psychology Department graduate students have been very successful over the years in obtaining research support through this mechanism. We hope to continue this trend, but in the meanwhile, please read on to learn about our latest NRSA recipient!

Let's start with the basics, where are you from and where did you complete undergrad/masters?

I'm from outside of Ithaca, New York. I did my undergrad at Middlebury College in Vermont.

How did you wind up at UW/why did you apply here? What do you think about living in Seattle?

I moved out to Berkeley, CA, a couple of years after undergrad and fell in love with the west coast. I already knew I was really interested in Lori's work, and when I came up here to interview, I knew I wanted to come to UW. I love living in Seattle-- I think it's the one city I could happily live in for all of grad school, given that I grew up in the middle of nowhere and went to college in the middle of nowhere. It's definitely hard being so far from east coast family and friends, but I'm sold on Seattle.

What is your research interest and how did you get into it (what inspires/motivates you)?

I'm interested in intrusive memories after traumatic experiences, and ways in which we might be able to decrease the intensity and frequency of these intrusions. With this project, I'm looking at memory reconsolidation as a possible avenue for decreasing intrusions. Animal research and some human research suggest that fearful memories are particularly malleable upon retrieval. If new updated information is presented within a particular window of time, this updated memory may be more durable than if the new information is presented outside of the window. I'm using a distressing film segment to first induce intrusions, and then looking at differences in in how effective updated information is in decreasing these intrusions depending on when the updated information about the distressing film is presented. I have done research in the PTSD field since undergrad, and became really interested in translational research during a post-grad position in a psychiatry lab at Massachusetts General Hospital. Memory reconsolidation seemed to be fairly well-studied in animal models, but there were some gaps and controversies in the human memory literature. 

How did you learn about your funding opportunity and tell us about the application/waiting process?

Most older grad students in my lab had applied for NRSA fellowships, and when NSF decided they didn't want to fund me, this seemed like the clear next step. Even though the process of applying is a bear, it's great to get a first experience of preparing an NIMH grant application under my belt, since I have the feeling this won't be the last time I ask for their money!  I was fortunate to have examples of other people's NRSA proposals, and Lori was a great mentor throughout the (very stressful) application process. I got lucky and didn't have to resubmit, but worked closely with my project officer from when I got my score until I officially got funding. That part was kind of a blur, cramming to do my IRB and respond to reviewer concerns as quickly as possible, but it all worked out in the end.

How did you feel when you learned that your application was accepted and that you will receive funding?

I was so excited!  I really had no idea what my chances of getting funded were, and I think I'd mentally prepared myself for not getting scored at all. By the time I got the official e-mail, I had a pretty good idea that I was getting funded, but that initial contact from my project officer saying she was going to recommend it for funding was huge. The longer-term reaction has been “oh crap, now I actually have to do this thing!”  

Do you have any advice/tips/suggestions for others who may apply to this opportunity? About graduate study in general?

My number one piece of advice in applying for an NRSA is to get started early, and be aware of all of its components at the outset. There are lots of smaller pieces that got put to the side early on that I had to cram for last-minute (you know, small details like power analyses). Ask other students who have applied what parts took them the longest.

What do you hope to accomplish with the funding and/or while in the UW Psychology graduate program?

With the funding, I'll be able to use the rest of graduate school to do things more in line with my specific interests. I'm looking forward to having more time to myself, and do things like take classes in other departments and fully focus on this project. It'd be awesome to leave here feeling like a real expert in my line of research. I wish the grant got me out of required coursework, but that doesn't seem to be the case... What do you like doing in your spare time?

I love to be outside, run, hike, travel, cook, bake, drink coffee on sunny patios. My answer sounds so Seattle, but I guess that's how you know this city has won me over.

The last book and/or movie you saw and enjoyed?

It's not a book or a movie, but everyone should watch the PBS Nature episode about snow monkeys. It's incredible. Pay special attention to the monkey named Bubbles.

What you plan to do once you complete your PhD?

That's a scary question...I'm still not sure what my ideal job would look like, I think that's something I'm looking forward to figuring out in the next couple of years. There are days when I love research and don't like clinical work, and days when all I want to do is clinical work. My guess would be that I'll want a position that allows me to have both of these things, but the jury is still out.

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