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Student Spotlight - Paula Webster

PhD Candidate - Neuroscience

Paula J Webster

Laboratory of Dr. James W. Lewis, Department of Physiology, Pharmacology, & Neuroscience

I worked in the private sector most of my life, and I am now a non-traditional graduate student. Before coming to WVU, I was an autism therapist and prior to that I managed a NASA cooperative agreement at Wheeling Jesuit University. I received a BA in Psychology from Wheeling Jesuit University, Wheeling, WV. I am currently a PhD Candidate in the lab of Dr. James W. Lewis, Dept. of Physiology, Pharmacology, and Neuroscience.

I have been interested in the connection between the brain and behavior as long as I can remember – Psychology was my first college course. However, I did not have the opportunity to pursue a career in research until later in life. In 2006, a family member was diagnosed with autism, and I subsequently became an autism therapist. I was intrigued by how the brain works in children with this disorder because they are all so uniquely different even though theoretically they have the same disorder. This experience has been the primary driving force behind my choice to pursue a research degree and the topic of my research interests.

Our lab uses functional Magnet Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to investigate how the human brain processes and integrates sensory information. I am specifically interested in understanding sensory processing dysfunction in individuals with autism. Because autism is a “spectrum” disorder, difficulty with every day sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, can impact each person differently. Some individuals may be so sensitive to sounds that they cover their ears when in a classroom, or they may enjoy looking at objects that are lined up or spin to the detriment of social interaction, or a myriad of possible outcomes. This can often increase anxiety, negatively impact their ability to attend and learn, or have other consequences depending upon the person. Intriguingly, some individuals with autism have incredible sensory capabilities such as perfect auditory pitch or astonishing visual memorization.

My research project is exploring adaptive neural mechanisms in adolescents and young adults with high-functioning autism engaged during processing of real-world sensory information. Most fMRI studies have traditionally used static images of shapes, faces, etc., and pure auditory tones; however, we are using a video of a person bouncing a basketball, which is more representative of the real world in which we live. We hope to elucidate brain regions engaged when integrating multisensory (audiovisual) information in individuals with autism. As part of this effort, our lab conducted the first research crowd-funding campaign at the WVU Health Science Center to fund this project, and we also received a research grant from the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

While at WVU, I have received several travel awards and presented our data at international and local conferences. In addition, I helped found the WVU Neuroscience Graduate Student Organization and was the first elected President. The graduate students worked with faculty to develop a more robust neuroscience curriculum and program handbook. My first project in Dr. Lewis’s lab investigated brain regions utilized by adults without autism to process different types of sounds (see below publication).

Webster, P. J., Skipper-Kallal, L. M., Frum, C. A., Still, H. N., Ward, B. D., & Lewis, J. W. (2017). Divergent Human Cortical Regions for Processing Distinct Acoustic-Semantic Categories of Natural Sounds: Animal Action Sounds vs. Vocalizations. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 10(January), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2016.00579

Having come from a rural town in Ohio with no stoplights, I greatly appreciate the opportunity to learn how to conduct fMRI research in Dr. Lewis’s lab. I currently live outside of Pittsburgh with my family, two Newfoundlands, and one Guinea pig – the fish didn’t make it. I love spending time with my family, watching fireworks, and seeing a full moon. In what free time I have, I like to be on the water whenever I can, because it gives me a sense of peace. Recently I bought a catamaran, so now I need to learn how to sail! I am looking forward to publishing my data soon and graduating this year. 

Paula and family