2024 NIH Diversity Supplement Awards give young research scientists opportunity to explore new career paths

Samantha Paternoster
June 03, 2024
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(left to right) Ja'Quann Gallant, Na Jin Seo, and Arianna Alston

Ja’Quann Gallant and Arianna Alston, research staff members in the MUSC College of Health Professions, are expanding their research skill set as the latest recipients of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Diversity Supplement Awards, designed to open the doorway to a career in research. Their research projects will be completed within Na Jin Seo, Ph.D.’s, study on the TheraBracelet, a wearable rehabilitation device that provides sensory stimulation, and its impacts on recovering hand functionality after surviving a stroke.

“This award allows people who may otherwise not consider a career in research to experience and train in research, and consider the future paths in research,” said Seo, a professor and researcher in the Division of Occupational Therapy. “It is a great pipeline program to encourage those from underrepresented backgrounds to delve themselves into research activities and see what it is all about.”

Coming into research with a background in psychology, Alston, a research program assistant on Seo’s team, found herself drawn to studying neurological deficits – specifically the connection between the brain and hand muscle in stroke survivors.

Though Alston had experience in clinical settings, it never felt like the right path for her. The opportunity to step into the research field has given her a chance to explore a new way to help patients.

“There’s something really amazing about the research field and the acquiring and creation of knowledge,” said Alston.

With this award, she’ll be researching changes in the motor cortex with intervention to see how it has or has not changed over time and whether patients gain more distinctions in the hand muscle after intervention.

Gallant, who has been working with Dr. Seo since April of 2022 as a research program coordinator, is taking a deeper look at therapy outside of the clinical aspect to find what more can be done to help patients at home. Initially interested in physical therapy as an undergraduate, Gallant is confident his research work with Seo will help him create a holistic approach, should he return to the clinical side at a future point in his career.

“When I was an undergrad, initially I wanted to go into PT school, and with that, you learn a lot of the clinical things but it’s interesting to get an idea of what more you can do to help the patients at home,” said Gallant.

His research project looks at the effects of adherence to home exercise programs and the ability to increase the use of the affected hand. He’s most curious to learn what factors block patients from adhering to their home exercise programs and how they can be addressed in the future.

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(left to right) Adam Baker, Na Jin Seo, Ja'Quann Gallant, Arianna Alston, Devin Thompson, and Jenna Blaschke

The opportunities presented by these awards offer more than just experience in research – they often create the pathway to a successful career as a research scientist. Adam Baker, a research coordinator in the college and award recipient in 2022-2023, is one such example.

“He [Baker] successfully trained, collected neurophysiologic data, performed analysis to find neurobiomarkers for specific impairments after stroke, and disseminated his research finding in conference presentations and publication,” said Seo. “He became more interested in research and finally applied for a Ph.D. program. Now he is pursuing a Ph.D. at MUSC to become a neurorehabilitation researcher!”

Both Gallant and Alston, as well as Jenna Blaschke and Adam Baker who received awards in 2022, have spoken highly of their time working with Dr. Seo – namely regarding how she encourages them to grow as researchers and attend conferences. With her support, Gallant will not only be attending the International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society this summer, but he’ll also be speaking on his research amongst the world’s largest society of biomedical engineers.

“I hope that these awards, along with our effort, will pay off and develop next-generation scientists to improve health,” said Seo.