Michele Tsai: 2010 Outstanding Graduate in the College of Arts & Sciences

Integrating the study of the science of the brain and the psychology of the mind

Michele S. Tsai has lofty goals.

After Commencement, she’ll enter a doctoral program in clinical psychology at the University of Kansas.

With an emphasis on health psychology, she intends to work with patients — especially children — who have chronic medical conditions such as heart disease or cancer.

It’s a subject with which she is all too familiar.

Born with congenital heart disease, Tsai has been a patient herself many times. She’ll have her fourth heart surgery this summer when doctors replace a valve inserted when she was young.

“I think this upcoming surgery, and the one I had a few years ago, have compelled me to think more about my career,” Tsai says. “I know I’m interested in helping young patients similar to me who have chronic health problems.”

Since many of her friends are pre-med students, Tsai, a Pittsburgh, Pa., native, considered studying to become a doctor.

“But I realized that I sympathize more with the patient’s perspective,” she says. “I feel I can be a better help to them by studying health psychology and being able to talk to children about what they are going through.”

Tsai will graduate May 21 with a dual bachelor’s degree in psychology and in philosophy-neuroscience-psychology, both in Arts & Sciences.

She says integrating the study of the brain and mind into one major was appealing.

“The philosophy classes have helped me to understand the concept of the mind/brain,” Tsai says, “and it’s been great to engage in those kinds of questions.”

Tsai has been working at the School of Medicine as a research assistant in the lab of Joan Luby, MD, associate professor of child psychiatry and founder and director of the Early Emotional Development Program in the School of Medicine.

“We’re studying a group of children who came into the study as preschoolers,” Tsai says. “Some of them had diagnoses of mood disorders, and some were normal, healthy controls. We’ve been tracking their emotional and intellectual development, trying to understand the course of depression through childhood. Our study participants are now all in elementary school.”

She hopes to continue on the same path and engage in clinical work and research in her career.

“I’d like to examine what factors might influence treatment adherence or help children at different stages of their lives to take more control over the management of their health,” Tsai says. “I’d also like to help parents decide when and how to help their children understand their condition more deeply instead of sugar-coating everything.

“Kids are really smart,” she says. “I think they are much more capable of taking care of themselves than we sometimes give them credit for.”

Tsai has a head start by volunteering at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where she also has joined a support group for parents of very young children who have congenital heart disease.

“It’s been fascinating to see their side of the experience because that was my parents’ experience when I was young,” she says. “It’s encouraging for parents to see me and see what their child may be like after all these surgeries.

“They can still have a normal life, though this is obviously something we deal with our whole lives,” she says.

As a student, Tsai sought new ways to strengthen her body and sharpen her mind.

“Michele stood out from the beginning, not only for her ability to master the techniques quickly but also for her perceptive reading of the texts in Taoist philosophy that we utilize as companion readings to the physical workout,” says Dirk M. Killen, PhD, associate dean in the College of Arts & Sciences, who teaches a course on the ancient Chinese form of exercise, meditation and martial art called T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

“I have been so impressed with Michele’s insight and her maturity,” Killen says. “She will do extremely well in her chosen career, helping young people to cope better with their living situation in the face of the challenges posed by extreme physical limitations. She’s an inspiration.”

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