Norton scholars study transgender health behaviors, brain activity

Kevin Squires, Assistant News Editor
May 4, 2014

For President Cheryl J. Norton, there may not be any better way to demonstrate success than through research. It was for that reason that she and her husband, Henry Norton, founded the Norton Undergraduate Research Scholarship.

“I’ve always thought research was one if the foundational skills and I wanted to support it,” she said. The scholarship was for $500 and awarded to junior psychology and philosophy dual major Melanie Seymour and junior physics major Zoey Prokopiak.

Seymour will be working with Drs. Jennifer Sanftner, Catherine Massey and Emily Keener of the psychology department to examine health behaviors in a project entitled “Health Behaviors of Minorities within Minority Groups: The Role of Gender Identity and Sexual Identity.”

According to Seymour, the project will be “looking at the LGBT community, but then focusing on a subgroup within that group which is transgender.”This is a group she feels needs examined.

“Transgender is often overlooked and there’s very minimal research on that group,” she said. “There’s also very little health behavior research on that [group].” The research will primarily focus on smoking, eating-behaviors and restrained eating in the Transgender community. One challenge for Seymour with examining this has been finding a group large enough to have a strong study, that’s why much of the funds from the scholarship will be used to purchase incentives, such as a Kindle Fire, for participants.

“I need to get [a certain] amount of people within the group to make sure it’s a decent sample size, but using incentives will help increase those numbers,” Seymour said.. She is expecting the research and funding to lead to big things for her future.

“The scholarship means a lot because right now I’m really looking at potentially going into women and gender studies or sexuality studies for a masters or PhD so any research I can gain right now I’m jumping on that experience,” she said. “All of this is just really setting me up well for grad school admissions, grad school applications and looking at my future career goals.”

Prokopiak’s research demonstrates her view that scientific research should be inclusive of many fields, as does her degree concentration, computational biophysics.

“[My major is] almost like having three different minors, almost but not quite,” she said. “We’re getting to a part in science where if you are not picking a very specific thing you have a weird amalgamation of things that overlap with other things.”

The research project she proposed for the Norton Scholar Program shows the inclusive nature as well, involving faculty members in the psychology, mathematics, and physics departments.

“I think it’s really great that all three departments are working together. That doesn’t happen very often,” she said.

Jennifer Willford of the psychology department, Dr. Athula Heart of the physics department, Dr. Dil Singhabahu of the mathematics department and Alessandra Mitchell, another Slippery Rock University student, are collaborating with Prokopiak in an ongoing study to examine the effects on the brain activity of children of women who used drugs while they were pregnant using fMRI.

“fMRI is three dimensional and it’s more like a video,” Prokopiak said. Some of the data has already been examined, but there is still work to be done.

“The images are not perfect,” she explained. “You’re supposed to lie perfectly still but obviously you’re going to move a little bit. Even if they’re perfectly still, you’ve got interference with them breathing and you can’t make them stop breathing.” Her focus in the research will be working on writing a program to better interpret the data from the fMRI images.

No stranger to research, Prokopiak has worked with Dr. Carolyn Steglich of the Biology Department, studying reptile proteins and spent last summer studying protein folding at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She will be studying neuroscience at Rochester Medical School in New York this summer and will start her research as a Norton Scholar in the Fall.

Prokopiak plans to use the funding towards her tuition.

“I think it’s great because there are a lot of people who want to do research and they can’t. They don’t have the time,” she said. “They might have the time if they were getting scholarships that could go towards their tuition.”

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