Student from Alaska lands NIH position, eyes med school

After a year at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Joe Frankl was ready for a change. So he took “a bit of a blind leap” and moved to Arizona.

His decision to attend ASU was aided by the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) program that enables students from 14 Western states to pursue certain ASU bachelor’s degrees and pay significantly less than the full nonresident tuition rate.

As he completes his bachelor’s degree in psychology from ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Frankl is set to spend a year in the Post-Baccalaureate IRTA (Intramural Research Training Award) Program at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health. He also will complete the application process to start medical school in the fall of 2014.

“Joe is an outstanding scholar who is deeply committed to applying his education in ways that will help others,” said Deborah Hall, assistant professor of psychology in New College, the core college on ASU’s West campus.

Hall served as Frankl’s faculty advisor for his senior thesis through Barrett, The Honors College.

“I carried out what is known as a vignette study – where participants read a short narrative and respond to a series of questions about the character – to analyze the differences in perceptions and stigma towards individuals with major depressive disorder and alcohol dependence, and to see whether thinking of a disorder as physiological rather than psychological in nature affects perceptions and stigma,” Frankl said.

“These questions interest me because mental health stigma has been identified as a primary barrier to mental health treatment.”

Results of Frankl’s honors project showed differences in attitudes toward alcoholism versus depression.

“Participants were more likely to believe a lack of willpower and the way a person was raised caused alcoholism than depression. They also were more likely to think that a chemical imbalance caused depression,” he explained. “Participants tended to see hospitalization, support groups, and talking with friends and/or family as more appropriate treatment options for someone with alcoholism, while viewing psychotherapy, clergy and/or prayer, and medication as more appropriate for someone with depression. Similar trends have been found over the years and in multiple countries.”

Frankl’s ability to design, carry out and report the results of a research project was developed through his New College experiences. Under Hall’s guidance he participated in the New College Undergraduate Inquiry & Research Experiences (NCUIRE) program, which pays students a stipend to conduct research in collaboration with faculty. He served as a research assistant in Hall’s lab, the Identity and Intergroup Relations Lab.

His wide-ranging interests also led Frankl to volunteer in the analytical chemistry lab of Thomas Cahill, another New College faculty member.

“Having the chance to work directly with professors raised the standard I set for my own work,” Frankl said. “These interactions positively affected how I approached all of my coursework. Participating in psychology studies opened my eyes to how much work goes into creating the elegant theories presented in textbooks.

“And my work with Dr. Cahill gave me an understanding of what it takes to generate new scientific knowledge. Learning new laboratory techniques and using them in a method development trial is experience that I hope will make it easier for me to carry out research at the NIH and as I progress through medical school and residency,” he said.

Frankl also found time to volunteer in the Banner Thunderbird Medical Center Pediatric Emergency Department and in a tutor/mentorship program for youths in the foster care system through the nonprofit organization Arizonans for Children.

“This was a chance for me to give back to the community while getting experience working with at-risk youth, who utilize mental health resources at alarmingly high rates.”

As for the exact path he plans to follow in the medical field, Frankl is keeping an open mind.

“Several doctors I have spoken with said that they did not choose their specialty until their clinical years, and subspecialists can delay the decision until after medical school,” Frankl said. “I look forward to being able to explore multiple specialties and practice settings in medical school and then making a decision. I hope I can continue to be involved in research during my medical education.”