The challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic didn't stop Julia Tetreault '21 from realizing her goals in the Hassenfeld Summer Scholars program, which included starting on what would become her thesis project on affect in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
As a 2020 Summer Scholar, Tetreault worked remotely for the Autism Initiative, reviewing recordings that were made prior to COVID-19 of adults with ASD in socially stressful situations. Tetreault was able to code participants’ affect during these situations to better understand how people with ASD might respond to certain stressors.
In the videos, participants engaged in three minutes of small talk with a researcher, followed by three minutes of being abruptly ignored, before returning to the conversation for an additional three minutes. Overall, Tetreault determined that although participants with ASD had a relatively muted affect during small talk, it was still positive.
“There might be an assumption that people with ASD would be more stressed during these interactions, but it’s important to recognize that people with ASD are engaging similarly to people without ASD,” Tetreault said.
Tetreault has always been interested in better understanding and raising awareness of affect among people with ASD because she has an older brother who has an acquired brain injury.
“I always knew I wanted to do research working with people who have some sort of intellectual or developmental disability,” Tetreault said.
In her junior year at Brown, Tetreault started working on research with Stephen Sheinkopf, PhD, one of the co-leads of the Autism Initiative. There, she also worked with Danille Sipsock, M.D., who was a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Brown at the time working on a project on depression among adolescents with ASD.
“I was very excited to learn about Dr. Sipsock’s work as a psychiatrist. I’m very interested in how the brain works, and I’ve shadowed my brother’s neurologist a few times, so I’m considering neurology as a field,” said Tetreault, who will be applying to medical school.
Of her experience as a Summer Scholar, Tetreault said it allowed her to establish her thesis and continue working with Dr. Sheinkopf, who Tetreault said was a fantastic mentor.
“Receiving the stipend and being able to continue my work with Dr. Sheinkopf was so important. Interacting with and learning from other researchers in ASD and in the Hassenfeld Institute’s other initiatives was an eye-opening experience,” Tetreault said.
Tetreault graduated from Brown this month with a concentration in neuroscience. She plans to take a gap year and work as a medical scribe in a dermatologist’s office before starting medical school.
“The Summer Scholars Program was outstanding, especially during a really challenging climate. We didn’t know what to expect over the summer, and everyone in charge did a really good job of transitioning to remote learning. I was able to learn a lot from the program,” Tetreault said.
Learn more about the Autism Initiative at the Hassenfeld Child Health Innovation Institute.