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Psychology undergraduate receives Barrett award for outstanding research

Isabel Strouse
April 29, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

In the United States, approximately 8% of women ages 15 to 44 are currently using long-acting and reversible contraception such as an intrauterine device (IUD). The number of women using an IUD has doubled in the last decade and is expected to rise.

Isabel Strouse, a psychology and biology double major at Arizona State University, evaluated whether use of an IUD had any effect on learning and memory. The project was her senior honors research thesis, and it won the Barrett, The Honors College's award for outstanding research. Strouse will be recognized at ASU’s convocation on Saturday, May 4, at Wells Fargo Arena in downtown Tempe.

Strouse’s senior research thesis, “An Evaluation of the Levonorgestrel-Releasing Intrauterine Device and Its Impact on Cognitive Function in a Rat Model,” also won the ASU Department of Psychology Honors Thesis of the Year award. Student theses underwent a rigorous evaluation from three external examiners: Robert Leeman, associate professor in health education and behavior at the University of Florida; Sarah Kucker, assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University and Jill Daniel, professor of psychology and director of the Tulane Brain Institute at Tulane University.

Strouse carried out her research on IUDs in the Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Lab under the mentorship of the 2018 AZ Biosciences Educator of the Year, Heather Bimonte-Nelson. The Bimonte-Nelson research group studies aging and memory with a focus on how hormones like estrogen and progesterone impact memory across the female life span. The research in the Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory and Aging lab is relevant to understanding both normal and abnormal aging processes, such as with Alzheimer’s disease.

Related: Bimonte-Nelson lab links hysterectomy to memory deficit

Strouse, a native of Paradise Valley, Arizona, discovered Bimonte-Nelson’s lab the summer after her freshman year at the University of California Los Angeles. She transferred to Barrett, The Honors College at ASU as a sophomore and started working in the lab. Strouse said she was immediately hooked by the Bimonte-Nelson team because of the infectious energy of the research group and the chance to design a research study of her own.

“My participation in the Bimonte-Nelson laboratory has been one of the greatest highlights of my time in college. I not only had the opportunity to be heavily engaged in research that stimulated my own scientific interests, but I was also always surrounded by compassionate, driven, supportive people who were asking important preclinical questions about women’s health. It provided me with a model of a collaborative and team-oriented scientific community, a newfound appreciation for the research process, mentors who I know I can always turn to, and friendships that will last a lifetime,” Strouse said.

The device Strouse studied was a Levonorgestrel-releasing IUD (Levo IUD).

“It is currently claimed that the IUD exerts effects only locally, so only in the tissue of the uterus. But, we know there are connections between the brain and uterus, and there is also a relationship between steroid hormones and cognitive function in both rats and humans,” Strouse said. “We instead hypothesized that use of the Levo IUD would result in systemic effects, particularly impacting cognition, in addition to local alterations to the uterus.”

Strouse’s research experience was like a rollercoaster ride. The procedure her research project required had never been done before, let alone by an undergraduate student scientist. But although Strouse had initially thought she uncovered a strong link between the IUD and learning and memory, she discovered an issue with device rejection. Strouse was devastated initially, but her attitude quickly changed.

“This experience helped me realize that this is how science goes, and often the questions that come about from unexpected findings can be even more interesting than the initial questions you had,” Strouse said.

“I have mentored nearly 100 undergraduate students since I started my laboratory about 13 years ago, and I have mentored a wide range of students,” said Bimonte-Nelson, professor of psychology. “Isabel is brilliant, engaged, motivated, creative and has a great scientific mind. She easily rises to the top of all the undergraduates I have ever mentored. She thrives in challenging environments, she pushes herself to be her very best, she works wholeheartedly as a team member, and she elevates the caliber of those around her!”

She might as well have a time-turner

When she is not working in the Bimonte-Nelson lab, Strouse advocates for Camp Kesem, a student-led national nonprofit that raises funds to take children affected by cancer to camp during the summer. Students like Strouse are responsible for raising all the funding and acting as camp counselors for the many children who have parents who are currently experiencing or have experienced cancer.

“Kesem provides a support network and safe space for children to feel that they are not alone in their struggles, and know that they will always have a place marked by unconditional love to turn to,” she said. “Its mission hits close to home, and I would not be who I am today without the people I have met through Kesem.”

Strouse has also been involved in a student organization called One Love, which aims to educate college students about the early warning signs of unhealthy relationships. The organization also helps support students who have experienced domestic abuse.

But her service does not end there. Strouse has experience in clinical service, previously volunteering in the emergency department of a hospital as well as traveling to Ghana to administer medical care to rural villagers in the Volta Region. She is also a student success coach in the new Psychology Student Success Center. In the center, Strouse tutors fellow undergraduates on subjects like writing, statistics and other upper-division psychology concepts.

We asked Strouse a few questions:

Question: What made you interested in psychology?

Answer: I started college as a biology major but have always been very interested in physiology and the integration of body systems. I started working in Dr. Bimonte-Nelson's Behavioral Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Laboratory the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. The relationship between behavior and biology, which I have had the opportunity to learn about and directly observe through my research experience, as well as my growing attraction to understanding the brain as a control center for nearly all body systems, is what sparked my interest in pursuing psychology as a dual degree.

Q: What made you choose ASU?

A: In addition to starting only as a biology major, I also started college at UCLA. When I came home for the summer between my freshman and sophomore years and started working in Dr. Bimonte-Nelson's laboratory, I was immediately drawn to the sense of community, support and collaboration both in the lab and throughout the Psychology Department as a whole. Being a community-oriented student, and excited about the research I was participating in, I decided to transfer from UCLA to Barrett at ASU. I have been endlessly grateful for this decision ever since, and especially grateful for the support of Dr. Bimonte-Nelson and the role model she has been to me over the past 3 years. Each opportunity I have been lucky to have in my time here has made me feel incredibly tied to and welcomed by the community of passionate, hard-working, and supportive students, faculty, and staff at ASU.

Q: Favorite part of campus?

A: My favorite part of campus is the general atmosphere. Even though ASU is such a large university, there are so many ways to get involved in the community that I frequently find myself running into people I know. Everyone says hello and are friendly and inclusive. To be immersed in such a positive and encouraging campus environment has made my time at ASU truly enjoyable.

Q: What was your favorite class/professor?

A: My favorite class was Physiological Psychology, taught by one of my favorite professors, Dr. Whitney Hansen. I loved Physiological Psychology because it provided the perfect interdisciplinary crossover between biological mechanisms and psychological outcomes, which is my own area of interest. I had the opportunity to take both this class and Research Methods with Dr. Hansen, as well as be her undergraduate teaching assistant for Physiological Psychology and work with her in the inaugural year of the Psychology Student Success Center. I have loved each of these experiences because of her. To the core, she is an engaging and supportive mentor, a driven and dedicated scientist and faculty member, and a huge role model to me. 

Q: What is the best advice you can give an undergraduate at ASU?

A: The best advice I can give to an undergraduate at ASU is to get as involved as possible in anything that sparks your interest. Everything you contribute to the ASU community, you will get back even more. There are so many incredible opportunities and resources at a school this big, and even though ASU's size can be intimidating at the beginning, finding pockets of like-minded people with whom you share interests will make campus feel a lot smaller and more intimate. Even if you venture into something that you decide is not for you, it will help you find the things and people you love. I believe there is no such thing as an entirely bad experience, because, at the end of the day, all experiences only help you to further understand yourself and what you are looking for. Always pursue what you are passionate about, even if it feels stressful at times, because your passions will drive you to find success, lifelong friendships and mentors, and happiness at ASU.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After graduation, I will be taking a gap year. I am applying to medical school this summer, and hope to ultimately pursue a career in neurosurgery. During my gap year, I will be working as a medical scribe in a clinical setting.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem, what would you tackle?

A: If someone gave me $40 million to solve one problem, I would dedicate it to supporting families affected by cancer. I lost my dad to cancer when I was 10, and since coming to college, I have gotten involved with an organization called Camp Kesem. Kesem is a completely student-led national nonprofit that supports children through and beyond a parent's cancer, and has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling organizations I have gotten involved with at ASU. Although most people think about cancer patients as those most affected by the disease, the impact it has on the family as a whole, and especially children, can be devastating. I would want to donate the money to supporting Camp Kesem and finding other ways to help families struggling with cancer.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus?

A: My favorite spot on campus is Noble Library. I have spent many nights, and sometimes through to the next morning, at Noble studying with friends, working on papers or completing homework assignments. Usually, this also meant a lot of laughter and good conversations with people who are dear to me. For me, Noble is a symbol of all the hard work and dedication we have put into these past few years of our lives, and a reason for the successes that we have had throughout college.

Top photo: Isabel Strouse won the Barrett, The Honors College's award for outstanding research. Photo by Robert Ewing

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