Studying the link between mind and body

Prestigious NIH-funded program receives five-year renewal

As a psychology fellow, Kelsey Largen works with children suffering from cancer and chronic blood disorders.

Like most cancer patients, the children’s emotions swirl around worry and sadness. Through training she received while earning her doctorate at the University of South Carolina, Largen recognizes how the physical ailments are exacerbating the children’s mental health issues.

Largen was part of a cohort of students in the Behavioral-Biomedical Interface Program (BBIP), funded by a prestigious National Institutes of Health research training grant. The program has been such a success that the NIH renewed it for a third five-year cycle.

“Federal training grants are highly competitive,” says Prakash Nagarkatti, vice president for research. “The renewal of BBIP’s T32 grant underscores NIH’s recognition of our strong research-training environment, excellent faculty mentors and successful engagement of students from underrepresented minority groups.”

Some of the patients whom Largen works with at the Children’s Hospital of Colorado may have pre-existing mental health issues. By understanding the medical side, Largen can anticipate the course of the disease, what the treatment will entail and how the child’s mental health will be affected.

“I was very interested in the ways in which psychological and biological factors intersect in children with chronic health conditions,” she says.

Each doctoral student in the Behavioral-Biomedical Interface Program takes part in three 10-week lab rotations, which allow them the opportunity to see the link between the mind and the body. The program promotes collaboration between psychology students in the College of Arts and Sciences and epidemiology and exercise science students in the Arnold School of Public Health.

“Those rotations provided hands-on experiences in new areas, such as brain stimulation, robotic assessments and neuroimaging,” says Addie Middleton, assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Middleton, whose background is in physical therapy and exercise science, says her Behavioral-Biomedical Interface training at UofSC allowed her to expand her perspective beyond the patients’ physical limitations.

“Through the BBIP training, I developed an appreciation for all stages of the research process,” Middleton says. She is researching rehabilitative care of geriatric patients and takes into account the different mental factors that may limit a patient’s physical mobility.

“I am particularly interested in translational research,” she says. Such research allows for a bench to bedside approach, allowing Middleton to see patients improve from the work done in research labs.   

“The beauty of our longstanding BBIP program partnership is that it gives our pre-doctoral students access to and experiences with a premier NIH-funded training program designed to work at the critical interface between behavioral sciences and the more traditional public health disciplines of epidemiology and exercise science,” says Thomas Chandler, dean of the Arnold School of Public Health.

The program’s aim is to train the next generation of health scientists. South Carolina graduates have gone on to conduct research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute on Aging, American Cancer Society and a number of top research universities.

“To date, 58 students and graduates supported by 32 BBIP faculty are positioned to tackle major health problems via multidisciplinary scientific teams,” says behavioral scientist Ron Prinz, who co-directs the Behavioral-Biomedical Interface Program with neuroscientist Rose Booze.

“The interdisciplinary nature of the Behavioral-Biomedical Interface Program not only opens the door for diverse career paths for students, but also helps faculty mentors from South Carolina to collaborate across disciplines and make new discoveries with significant societal impacts,” Nagarkatti says.  

“BBIP was a large component of why I decided to attend the University of South Carolina, because it supported my long-term career goal of working with children in a medical setting,” Largen says.

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