By Adriana Ramirez, ’18

Rosanna Thai, ’17, came to the University of Richmond with a love of biology and neuroscience and plans to become a psychiatrist. However, after a shadowing experience with a psychiatrist in a local hospital, she realized it wouldn’t be the right fit.

“Most of the psychiatrists were focused on prescribing or adjusting medication, and had very little time to work with their patients,” she said. “Medicine is important, but I believe that figuring out the conditions that cause the brain to change its chemistry is important, too.”

So Thai set out to understand the brain and its chemistry through undergraduate research — with a new goal of becoming a therapist. “When I arrived, I knew I was interested in studying the interaction of psychological behaviors and their biological components,” she said, “but research wasn’t something that was mentioned as an option in my high school. No one really knew how to go about it.”

Thai was introduced to lab techniques through the University of Richmond Integrated Science Experience (URISE) the summer before her first year. She continued with the Science, Math and Research Training course (SMART), which concluded with a summer research fellowship with former neuroscience professor Craig Kinsley. “We studied how mother rats’ brains change after pregnancy, and I specifically was looking at whether males were more attracted to females who had already mated,” Thai said.

Kinsley gave Thai plenty of room to explore on her own. “He told me to think of a question and then he would help me come up with a methodology to help solve that problem,” she said. “I’d never had that much autonomy.

Thai is now conducting research with psychology professor Lisa Jobe-Shields on the effects of trauma on young college-age women. This trauma could be caused by sexual assault, physical abuse, or domestic violence. She specifically looks at whether young women began drinking alcohol as a way to cope with their trauma.

Her theory was that the results might differ based on ethnicity or cultural background. “When you do research you try to find a mediating factor that influences your results,” she said. “I chose to explore ethnicity because I believe the customs you grow up with, the culture you grow up will inevitably influence how you deal with things.”

While her survey data ultimately didn’t support her initial hypothesis, Thai feels she still learned a lot. “I realized how hard it is to do research depending on where you are located and the population you have the opportunity to sample,” she said.

Doing this research project has helped Thai learn to be more open-minded. “When you hear facts and statistics, you think you understand an issue, but in reality, you never truly understand it until you hear actual stories of survivors and see to how this trauma affects so many people,” she said. “It was hard for me to understand sexual assault, because I haven't had an experience with it, and my family’s way of treating it culturally is very different. I learned to not limit myself to my experiences and be open to stories from all different backgrounds.” 

Before pursuing graduate school for counseling, Thai plans to teach English in South Korea or Japan. She hopes that building her language skills will help her reach her ultimate goal of providing therapy to minorities who don't have access to it because of financial difficulties. She believes language will help her have a more successful relationship and understanding with her clients. 

Looking back, Thai feels that experiencing life in the lab and studying science from an interdisciplinary perspective will set her up for success in her chosen field. “URISE gave me a glimpse of what college life would be,” she said, “but SMART was the bridge that provided a gap between high school and college.”