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Seeing gender difference in schizophrenia presentation using MRI

If you catch senior Neuroscience student Kennedy Madrid running across campus, she may be rushing to the Maeser building to help with an Honors event or speeding to a lab meeting to present her research. You can be certain that she is doing something extraordinary though. As she prepares to defend her thesis, “Examining Limbic Sexual Dimorphisms in Schizophrenia”, this month, Kennedy sat down to share some advice about how to find success in the midst of changing plans.

After transferring to BYU Provo in September 2019 from BYU-Idaho, Kennedy promptly reached out to Dr. Derin Cobia in the Psychology department to begin researching. Dr. Cobia’s research focuses on taking a computational approach to analyzing MRI data that uncovers the connection between brain disease and brain structure. Starting out, Kennedy took the raw MRIs and edited them to ensure that the system tagged and recognized the right brain structures including the white matter and surrounding pia mater. She helped the programs highlight the hippocampus, amygdala, and subcortical areas, all structures that are implicated in schizophrenia. She participated in these projects until August 2021 before branching out into her thesis. After taking a behavioral neuroscience class, Kennedy knew that she wanted to focus on the difference in schizophrenia presentation between genders. Many mental disorders are characterized based on male models, leaving females with lower rates of diagnosis and therefore, proper treatment. Research like Kennedy’s is essential to rectifying these disparities.

For the project, Kennedy aspired to analyze three data sets and synthesize the results. Unfortunately, one of the data sets was never ready to analyze. Instead of freezing in her stalled plans, Kennedy extended her graduation a semester to make time for all datasets to be ready. Now, she is finished with the project and defending her thesis this month.

Her advice for thriving in the thesis process is simple. Set yourself up for success but be flexible when your plan changes. The best way to do this is to introduce yourself to professors early and ask about research opportunities in your freshman and sophomore years. After laying out your plan, graciously accept the detours with a laugh and a new plan of attack.

When she wasn't in her research lab, Kennedy was focused on designing events for the Honors community as part of the Honors Student Leadership Council (HSLC). She loved seeing the fruits of her labor after proposing, planning, and implementing an event and noted her favorite event this past year was the Indiana Jones-themed Murder Mystery in October 2021. Beyond HSLC, Kennedy’s favorite part of the Honors Program were the Unexpected Connections classes. At BYUI, Kennedy had completed most of her general education classes, but says she did not mind the repetition because the Unexpected Connections classes were so enjoyable. The classes even shifted her academic path slightly to include a Sociology minor after falling in love with the discipline following the “Race and Music” class taught by Drs. Jacob Rugh and Luke Howard.

With her imminent graduation in June, Kennedy is looking forward to defending her thesis and applying to medical school this month. She is planning on pursuing a career in pediatric neurology or reproductive endocrinology. If her ability to brainstorm new plans and finding adaptations in the face of trials is any indication, Kennedy is looking forward to a future of excitement and success.