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Arnold School of Public Health


Exercise Science graduate turns trials into triumph, overcoming a neurological disorder to blaze a career in neuroscience

December 14, 2016 | Erin Bluvas, bluvase@sc.edu 

Moving from a farming community in Rhode Island to a southern city for college made Paige Vargo-Willeford feel a bit vulnerable, but she used the challenge to her advantage. “It was a stark change, but it presented me with a lot of opportunities I’d never had before,” she says. “My developing sense of who I was needed to be astute in sticking to what was important.”

Many students move from around the country to attend UofSC, but few grapple with obstacles as challenging as a brain disorder. “I’ve had Tourette’s Syndrome since I was eight years old, and I’ve since learned to own it,” Vargo-Willeford says. To manage her condition, which is characterized by repetitive involuntary physical movements and vocalizations, she practices self-reflective activities such as painting, playing the ukulele, and writing/performing poetry.

I’ve had Tourette's Syndrome since I was eight years old, and I’ve since learned to own it.

-Paige Vargo-Willeford, December Graduate (B.S. in EXSC)

“These activities are revealing of my inner state, and that guides me in knowing where I am in life and where I need to be headed,” she explains. “I’ve also learned to be good humored about frustrating things. Sometimes, when I’m particularly stressed, I tic more and can’t sit still or keep quiet. When I can laugh about something like how silly the things I shout are, it brings my stress levels down again and my symptoms are more easily suppressible.”

But Vargo-Willeford’s battle against Tourette’s doesn’t end with her personal coping strategies. The December graduate (B.S. in Exercise Science (EXSC)) is currently applying to graduate programs in neuroscience with the ultimate goal of studying the disorder in an academic setting.

I want to research how the connection between cognition and motor control can be utilized therapeutically in movement disorders.

-Paige Vargo-Willeford, December Graduate (B.S. in EXSC)

“I paint a lot to cope with my symptoms because they are gone when I’m engaged in my work, and I want to understand how we can use the basis of something like this in treatment,” she says. “I want to research how the connection between cognition and motor control can be utilized therapeutically in movement disorders.”

Beyond her coursework, the Capstone Scholar and Woodrow Scholarship recipient has been working with mentor and EXSC Assistant Professor Troy Herter in the department’s Rehabilitation Laboratory. As a research assistant, Vargo-Willeford studies eye movements in relation to arm movements in patients with stroke and Parkinson’s disease.

“We’re collecting data to understand eye movements better in Parkinson’s disease patients and can start to experiment with intervention programs once we gather sufficient data,” she says. “It’s beautiful to see this happening. What I love about what we do is that we aim to understand the body’s innate mechanisms and cull on those to improve quality of life.”

Science is equal parts mesmerizing and daunting, and Dr. Herter has played a fundamental role in guiding and pushing me in pursuit of solidifying a framework of specialized knowledge.

-Paige Vargo-Willeford, December Graduate (B.S. in EXSC)

Finding the right mentor has been an important factor in Vargo-Willeford’s success. “Science is equal parts mesmerizing and daunting, and Dr. Herter has played a fundamental role in guiding and pushing me in pursuit of solidifying a framework of specialized knowledge,” she says. “He has helped me grow intellectually and emotionally. He is also good humored, which makes for a welcoming environment where you feel comfortable asking questions.”

In addition to connecting with an influential mentor, Vargo-Willeford suggests that prospective students keep their interests varied.: “When you bring two things together that you normally would not find in the same place, that’s when you can find things you’ve never found before.”