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BrainWaves: The Neuroscience Graduate Program Newsletter

Perspectives of a MiNDS PhD Candidate on Graduate School Prior to and During COVID-19

Author: April Fievoli

Recently, Sarah Brassard, a PhD candidate working under the supervision of Dr. Balodis was interviewed to get her perspectives on the Neuroscience Graduate Program before and after the onset of COVID-19. In addition, Sarah reflects upon her experiences during graduate studies here at McMaster and provides some insight for other graduate students. 

Could you give a brief overview of your research?
My research program takes a psychoneuroendocrinological approach to assess how stress influences decision-making. What does this mean? It means I use multiple units of analyses, including self-report, behavioural, physiological and fMRI data, to assess how stress affects (dys)functional decision-making across disorders of impulse control (namely binge eating disorder, pathological gambling and cannabis used disorder). I am particularly interested in 1) comparing and contrasting self-report and physiological stress measures (cortisol in particular) on effort-based decision-making components (things like effort expenditure, reward valuation and reward probability), and 2) identifying neural substrates underlying effort-based decision-making and its subconstructs. 

What was the MiNDs program like before the onset of COVID-19? How are things different now than they were before?
Pre-pandemic, we used to have our Neuro700 class in person and after class, a bunch of us would get together and grab a bite or have a drink at The Phoenix on campus. We also used to have Journal Club and Colloquium in person which was great because who doesn’t love free snacks! Now, everything is virtual. We only really see each other on tiny boxes in our Zoom meetings. I think the pandemic has made it super hard to keep in touch with my classmates. We had only just met one another (we weren’t even a year into our program when COVID hit), and trying to transition our responsibilities (research, courses and TA obligations) remotely and keep new friendships alive was challenging. I unfortunately lost touch with many students from my year and some have since graduated and moved onto other career/academic goals. We were a larger gang compared to the 2020 and 2021 cohorts which made “re-connecting” that much harder. 

What are some coping and adaption skills you learned to deal with the challenges you might have faced?
Honestly, this pandemic has made me realize that mental health is so much more important than I thought. It’s so easy to get stuck in a constant work cycle because we have access to our computers (emails in particular) all day now! Just like I would go about scheduling meetings or writing blocks, I’ve also made it a habit to also schedule in some “me time” in my calendar. During my “me times”, I make it my goal to disconnect from school and focus on my mental health. I go for runs, hikes, cuddle with my dog (for those who haven’t met Finnegan yet, he’s very excited to meet you!), and I even developed a passion for cooking (which I used to hate pre-pandemic). My “me times” have allowed me to sporadically and momentarily step back from my research and come back to it with a fresh and clear mindset. I’m better able to manage my work/life balance which has also made me significantly less stressed about all of my current projects! 

What are some opportunities currently available to students in the MiNDS program? What are some extracurriculars that you are a part of at McMaster? 
I really think collegiality is important so getting involved in your school or program is a must for me! I have been a member of the Neuroscience Graduate Program Colloquium Committee for the past two years now, and I ran for co-president last year but unfortunately was not elected (it was such a great experience though)! The MiNDS program is great because there are many different ways students can get involved! Whether it’s taking on more social roles to plan social events or more academically driven roles like writing for Brainwaves, students have many opportunities to broaden their graduate school experience outside of just research obligations through various means! Heck, if you don’t find a committee or organization that jives with your vibe/interests, I’m sure you can start one (albeit following the appropriate University guidelines and procedures). Anyone want to start a MiNDS running club?

What are some of your achievements (personal or academic) that you have accomplished over the past two years? 
Personally, I hosted my first (and second) Thanksgiving dinners! This was such a big win for me considering I only started cooking during the pandemic! I also achieved a personal best running distance and time over the summer of 2021, and I attended my 200th spinning class! Academically, the pandemic was a blessing for me. I like to consider myself an academic hermit, so shifting to working remotely actually gave me so many more opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to take. Early on during the pandemic I transitioned from a MSc student to a PhD student, and more recently I successfully defended my comprehensive exam making me a PhD candidate now! I joined local and international committees including the Neuroscience Graduate Program Colloquium Committee and the Social Media Committee for the Academy of Eating Disorders, I attended international virtual conferences, I published my first, first-authored manuscript (with many more following), and to top it all off, last year was the year I received the most amount of academic awards and scholarships in my academic journey so far! All of these accomplishments are so rewarding, but none of them could have been achieved without the help of my lab mates, my friends, my comprehensive exam and thesis committee members and my supervisor! A million times, thank you! My “me time” didn’t hurt either!

What is some advice you would give to students who are early on in their graduate studies?
Have fun! Graduate school is such an important time in our lives that many students forget to have fun throughout it. We get so invested in our research, and so focused on getting publication after publication that many of us forget that we’re also making long-lasting friendships/connections in our program. Although we all study different things, we’ll all be able to say “hey, I know someone who does/did that kind of research” at some point in our lives. This is why I think it’s important to get involved in different student run organization within the university or our program itself. The social connections we make are just as rewarding as our academic achievements.

Thank you Sarah for your great tips!

Follow Sarah on Twitter @SarahBrassard12!