Curiosity, Compassion and “Nerdy Love for Brains” Drive Future Neurosurgeon
Curiosity, Compassion and “Nerdy Love for Brains” Drive Future Neurosurgeon

Brains – Mary Elizabeth Yeh finds them fascinating. Sometimes, she wears a silver brain pendant dangling from a chain around her neck, and she watches “Criminal Minds” and “Lie to Me” because behavioral analysis piques her interest. Ever since 6th grade, says the College of Arts and Sciences student from Honolulu, Hawaii, she has been interested in gaining insight into this wildly complex organ. Though she calls this interest her “nerdy love for brains,” it really is much more than a passion for knowledge of the brain.

“My big, long term goal is to be a neurosurgeon,” Yeh says. “Although I love learning about the cognitive aspects of the brain and how we process information, store memories, inhibit behavior and learn, I am most passionate about brain structures, how they function and relate to each other, how damage to them can affect behavior, and what can be done structurally to alleviate the effects of such damage.”

Fittingly, Yeh is a student in one of the newest majors at Creighton University – neuroscience. She explains the field as one that “marries biology and psychology. We are trying to bridge the gap – we know that neurons fire and we can imagine an image in our brain, but we don’t know how a neuron firing brings us that image. You need different angles to get a better picture,” and that is one of the complexities of the brain that Creighton’s neuroscience major allows students to explore. Core courses cover philosophy, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and more to bring a well-rounded understanding of the brain. As if that wasn’t enough Yeh also has minors in applied ethics, biology, and cognitive and behavioral neuropsychology.

Follow My Lead

To reach her goals, Yeh knew she should participate in research to get hands-on experience. So when she took a psychology class from Maya Khanna, PhD (shown above with Yeh) as a sophomore, and learned about Khanna’s research on the effects of lead on adolescent brains, she jumped at the chance to get involved.

“My interest in this particular project became apparent to me when I began to think about the diverse approaches to this issue of lead contamination,” Yeh says, “from the cellular level to the cognitive psychology approach.”  

Khanna is a co-investigator on a 5-year, $5.9 million multi-state EPSCoR grant from the National Science Foundation. The ambitious program, DevCog (developmental chronometrics and genomics) aims to get collaborators working to map development of the adolescent brain. A dearth of data about the factors that influence teenage brain development persists, partly due to the fact that kids don’t sit still, making commonly used technologies like fMRI less accurate.

Enter the magnetoencephalography (MEG) machine. Ask Yeh about this device and she perks up instantly. She examined data from a machine that is one of only about 20 of its caliber in the U.S. Both Creighton and University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) researchers use this device in the Center for Magnetoencephalography at UNMC, often as collaborators (in the photo shown, Yeh and fellow student researchers look on while a patient experiences a MEG scan).

To most people, the MEG’s counterpart, the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagining) machine, may be more familiar. It measures blood oxygen levels in different areas of the brain structure to determine which areas become activated. However, the MEG reads magnetic field changes induced by cell activity in the brain, with little interference from the skull. Essentially, the fMRI detects where brain activity is happening, but the MEG can also show when it occurs, allowing for a systems-level perspective on brain activity.

If the MEG machine sounds complex, that’s because, well, it is. Mary went to a three-day boot camp at UNMC to learn how it was developed, its strengths and weaknesses, and how MEG data is interpreted and analyzed – in the company of MD and PhD students and faculty who were learning the same thing. “It was a lot of dense material – the physics behind it – but I learned a lot,” she says.

In addition to looking over MEG and fMRI brain scan data, she interpreted behavioral test results and searched through a database of Omaha housing properties to find those with elevated levels of lead in the soil. For more than 100 years, Omaha housed a lead refinery near the Missouri River; even after extensive cleanup efforts, the effects of small remaining amounts of lead may prove to be detrimental. Although it is known that lead is detrimental to neural development, the focus of Khanna and Yeh’s research is on the neural effects of lingering lead contamination in Omaha specifically, though their findings may have national implications.

Digging Deeper

Eventually, Khanna encouraged Mary Elizabeth to apply for funding so she could take on a larger role in the project. Yeh earned the 2016 Jesuit Summer Undergraduate Research Award grant from Creighton’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (CURAS) to examine the relationship between lead and executive functioning test performance, and in October, she presented her results regarding relationships between ADHD and executive functioning test scores. “I am deeply grateful for my CURAS grant because without it, I may never have learned so much about MEG and about the known effects of lead on cognitive and brain development.”

She plans to keep working with Khanna this summer, and she hopes to gain a greater understanding of the brain; furthermore, environmental justice questions posed by the implications of children exposed to lead nag at her as well. “We […] need to address this situation in our community,” Yeh says. “There are national and international implications. Brain cells don’t care where you live or what nationality you are.”

Her comments about the project’s implications align with her plans to become a neurosurgeon. She seeks to expand her keen understanding of the ethical dimensions of medicine, and wants to work with Doctors Without Borders “to provide medical care to others, regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and all other factors that may impede access to medical care,” she says. And she has the drive – and brain power – to do it.

Learn more about the neuroscience major.