Student Gorham excels in the lab, on the track

Gorham will continue her research at National Institutes of Health

After graduation, Washington University in St. Louis senior Lisa Gorham will continue her research on adolescent mental health at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (Photo: Sid Hastings/Washington University)

Years of personal experience told Lisa Gorham, captain of the Washington University in St. Louis cross-country, track and indoor track teams, that team sports and adolescent mental health are linked.

But what would data from the nation’s biggest study of youth brain development say?

For the past three years, Gorham has been exploring that question. Now, the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging published her findings: Indeed, children who participate in team sports have greater hippocampal volume. In addition, team sports are associated with less depression among boys. 

“A lot studies have found that exercise can be good at treating and preventing depression and that it impacts hippocampal volume, but there have not been a lot of studies that look at hippocampal volume in kids,” said Gorham, a senior majoring in cognitive neuroscience in Arts & Sciences. “It has been really exciting to mash my anecdotal experience with actual science. It’s like, ‘Oh wow, this thing that I love doing is having a real impact on my brain.’”

Journals rarely publish research by undergraduates. But Gorham is a rare student, said her mentor, Deanna Barch, senior author on the study, chair of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences and the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine.

“I knew Lisa was special as soon as she started to work in my lab,” said Barch, a faculty fellow in Brookings Residential College, where Gorham lived as a first-year student. “She seemed to catch on to things effortlessly, had an amazing work ethic and really understood the research process.”

Barch and her husband, Todd Braver,  professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences and Gorham’s academic adviser, have helped Gorham secure a National Institutes of Health (NIH) post-baccalaureate intramural research training award. For the next two years, Gorham will continue to study adolescent mental health. Ultimately, she plans to earn her MD/PhD in adolescent psychiatry.

“There is still so much to learn about depression and adolescents, but we do know this: treating someone early, when they are experiencing their first instance of mental illness, can change the trajectory of their lives,” Gorham said.

Gorham celebrates with her teammates, donning their cheer shorts, at the 2018 NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships. (Photo: Washington University Athletics)

The Record caught up with Gorham before a team run to learn more about her interest in the brain, her relationship with Barch and how being a Bear has prepared her for life.

How did you first get interested in the brain?

It started when I was little and saw an exhibit on the brain at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Later, I decided to do an independent study in high school about neuroscience. I thought I could teach myself everything about the brain in one year, which — news flash — you can’t do because we don’t know everything about the brain.

For this research, you used data collected for the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. How did you become part of this important research?

It all started when I met Deanna Barch, who was my faculty fellow. She took me on as an undergraduate assistant. I didn’t know how impressive she was when I first met her. She was just the one who would make us waffles. It wasn’t until after the fact I was like, “Oh, look who I am working for.” Which makes all of the support and time she gives me all the more amazing. Deanna meets with me one-on-one every week. She taught me how to use all of the data analysis programs and walked me through how to write the paper. I could not have asked for a better mentor.

Has your work impacted your experience as a member of a team?

Definitely.  A lot of students at schools like WashU think they have to be the best at everything and that they need to sacrifice sleep and sanity in their pursuit of perfection. But my message to my teammates has always been to put your mental health first  — get sleep, prioritize your relationships, ask for help when you need it.

And the lessons I’ve learned being a Bear will last my entire life. Coach (Jeff) Stiles’ philosophy is “Not for me, for them.” A lot of people think running is an individual sport, but you are running for your teammates. When you are part of something bigger than yourself, you are capable of so much more. I felt that in Oshkosh, (Wisc.), when we won the NCAA championship. It was freezing, but all of us still wore “cheer shorts,” which are red and green, zebra-striped and polka dots. When you’re surrounded by your best friends, you’re like, “I don’t care if it hurts. I’m doing it for these people.” I had my best time ever because of all of the love and energy I felt from my team.

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