• Omar Rutledge

2021 in Review: Part Three

Updated: Jan 31


Corpuscular Rays in the Sierra Nevada

I will continue my series of posts reviewing my year of 2021. This is Part 3, which will cover my Summer Semester at MIT and another exciting road trip across the country. It’ll be a little shorter than the other entries, but with a few more pictures from the trip. Be sure to take a look at Part 1 and Part 2 if you have the time. Let’s get started!


Summer Semester: Jun – Aug 2021

Things were looking very hopeful at the beginning of June. The pandemic seemed like it might be under control with cases dropping across the country. Although some were still avoiding the vaccine, most people in Massachusetts were ready to enjoy the freedom that vaccination brought, and I was too. After teaching during the Spring, I was also ready to enjoy some time away from MIT, but I needed to take care of a few things first. Teaching (and the associated grading) consumed a large amount of my time, so in June I started trying to catch back up on research.


Every human-subjects research study is approved by a regulatory body charged with ensuring ethical practices during the execution of the study, usually called the Institutional Review Board, or IRB. The Brain-Body Study was IRB-approved even though we had not been able to begin the study procedures due to the pandemic. This was pretty disappointing because we had done a lot of work to get the study infrastructure in place as noted at the end of 2020, but we weren’t allowed to recruit people from outside of MIT to participate in the MRI scans. The scanner is a pretty tight space where people spend quite a bit of time, so ensuring good Covid procedures is a little difficult though not impossible. Hospitals are able to run people through, but for whatever reason MIT didn’t want to put people at risk, so scanning has not been possible.

Despite not being able to collect data with participants, ideally someday we would be able to, so when the protocol came up for renewal in early June, I worked to submit the renewal paperwork to keep the study open. Each study protocol is approved by the IRB on a yearly basis. If we were to hear that we are able to scan again, at least we would have the approval already and could ramp up quickly. Since the number of cases of Covid were dropping significantly at this point in time and we heard MIT would hold classes in-person in the Fall, we were hopeful that we could get approval to begin scanning again soon.


A Park in Maine

I also started getting back to a few different lab projects. I began working through the FSL tutorials at the beginning of the year to get a better understanding of the fMRI-processing software and to create a document that I can refer to at a later time. Ideally, once I would become familiar with the software, I’d be able to process previously-collected data as practice. Once I’m comfortable with the software and the general process of analysis, I’d develop a “pipeline” where I’d have a systematic, step-by-step process for processing the fMRI data in a very specific way. As I mentioned in Part 1, the tutorials are very detailed and have practice problems to help reinforce the material, so getting through the 20+ lessons for my purposes was going to be a bit of a challenge. It was fun getting back to this after focusing so heavily on teaching.


My advisor wanted to continue to develop my scientific thinking by having me expand my research interests and develop yet another research project. This might seem a little wild since I had completed writing a 16-page research proposal on PTSD and loneliness for my qualifying exams and I had a separate IRB-approved protocol on fear-conditioning and physiological responses ready to go, but neither was going to go anywhere with our restrictions on scanning due to Covid. In cognitive neuroscience, if I can’t scan, I can’t do research. I must conduct research to graduate, so rather than wait for the pandemic to be over, my advisor wanted me to explore some additional interests and write an NIH grant on that new project. What topic did I choose? CBD for anxiety. It’s a little bit of a different topic for me, but with so many CBD products out there and people touting their amazing effects, it’s shocking to find how little conclusive scientific research there is on the subject. I figured, why not see if CBD is actually helpful for anxiety. Step one: I needed to find out what research has already been conducted on the subject. In June, I started reviewing the literature on the brain effects of CBD for social anxiety.


Chicago Skyline

Other than working on my research projects, I also started getting more involved with shaping the culture of our department. In February, the department announced that they would begin a new initiative to be more inclusive in their practices, and to help institute this new initiative, they were creating a program they called the Community of Practice. It was brought about from the feedback from the community about a lack of diversity and inclusion within the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, or BCS. I believe the purpose behind this new program was to bring people together to talk about solutions to the inclusion problem and figure out how to implement these solutions within each of the labs at BCS. They asked for at least one member from each lab to be a representative at these CoP meetings, and I was asked to represent our lab. Honestly, I wasn’t too excited about getting involved in another project that would take time away from other things, but after my advisor encouraged my participation, I decided to take on the responsibility. Luckily, another person who split their time between our lab and another also volunteered to help. We had two representatives covering our lab.


Since our department is very large, one or two representatives from each lab is a lot of people, and since we were on Zoom for these meetings, having 50 or 60 people on one call was too much. The department broke us up into two cohorts, A and B, and held separate meetings to keep the numbers manageable. Even so, the first few meetings didn’t seem very effective. This was a new initiative on a touchy subject where most people had very little professional experience, and certainly no one had tried this Community of Practice thing before. Inevitably, there were a few hiccups in the beginning. The powerful people in the room would dominate the discussion and the people who needed to speak weren’t given the space to do so. Ultimately, I ended up leaving the first few meetings feeling less hopeful about the state of our department. From the facial expressions of folks in those little Zoom boxes, I thought it may be possible that others might be feeling the same way.


Amazing Formations in Utah

I reached out to as many grad students and post-docs from the CoP as I could to see if they were actually feeling the way I thought they did. It seemed that everyone I contacted felt like the initiative was missing the mark. The idea behind it was good, but the implementation was far off. By the time we had our third CoP meeting in early June, it was clear that something needed to be done to make these meeting more effective. The leadership needed a little help. Taking a page from other organizers on campus, I started holding separate meetings with the grad student and post-doc representatives of the CoP to see if we could come up with a way make the meetings more successful. After having deep discussions about what we felt was missing from the CoP, we decided to create a document outlining ways to improve the direction and purpose of the CoP.


There were enough people with sufficient passion in this ad hoc committee to create an effective document within just a few weeks. In my opinion, the document was a great blueprint for ways to improve diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in BCS. We centered the ideas around four main points: strengthening the Community of Practice with more structure and direction from the leadership, focusing on internal culture change and community-building efforts, developing training for the representatives and the faculty, and policy-making efforts at the administrative level within the department. Once it was created, we needed to meet with the CoP leadership and present our ideas to see if we could persuade them to adopt our ideas.


I didn’t know what to expect going into the meeting, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the leadership get quite excited when they realized that we had spent so much time considering the future direction of the CoP. They were very receptive to our suggestions! Perhaps they didn’t think anyone was really interested in the CoP, but when we showed that we were and we wanted to improve it, the leaders were eager to incorporate our suggestions in their practices. Ideally, when we’d start these meetings again in the Fall, we’d have a new format for our meetings with much more direction that will be more effective, and this is exactly what we all wanted. I’m so happy we were able to come together, and through organizing and advocacy, create the change we wanted to see. Interestingly, one of the members of this ad hoc committee nominated me for a Spot Award for my organizing efforts. I certainly didn’t do this work for an award, but it was nice to be recognized for it. I thank everyone on the committee who put forth the excellent ideas for the document.


A Road to California

I had been steadily working at MIT since my arrival from my last road trip in 2020. I would usually take a break in the winter and go on vacation for New Years, but since Covid was still rampant at that time and there was still no vaccine, I stayed in Boston. After the long Spring semester and getting fully-vaccinated, I was ready for a vacation! I decided to take the van on my biggest cross-country trip yet: from Portland, Maine to San Diego, California and back to Boston covering 27 states and 10,000 miles.


The road trip started in July. Over the years, I’ve become friends with a lot of people who have moved to various locations around the country, so when I started planning my trip, I quickly found out that I had friends in nearly every state that I would be visiting! It was great driving around the nation and catching up with friends that I hadn’t seen in many years. I even met up with an old friend that I hadn’t seen since middle school. It was the Epic Tour of 2021! While there were enormous fires in the West, I managed to avoid the smoke when I was in Utah and California, but eventually it caught up with me in South Dakota as it was blowing East. I heard that the smoke made it all the way to Boston, which is wild. That jet stream is powerful. While it was wonderful to get away from MIT for a while, I was ready for the trip to end when it did. After 41 days on the road, I finally made it back to Boston safe and sound. I was recharged and ready for another year at MIT.


Smoky Haze in the Badlands

As mentioned in Part 2, I had started the process of figuring out what I needed to do to fix my shoulder. The pandemic prevented me from going in and getting the shoulder repaired since it wasn’t a life-threatening condition, but after vaccination, I got the appropriate imaging to plan the repair surgery. I chose to wait to have the surgery until after my big road trip. The day finally came for me to fix my shoulder. At the end of August, I finally had the labral tear repaired. It was a relatively easy surgery, and while recovery would take many weeks, I knew after I awoke that the surgery was successful. After nearly two years dealing with pain after getting hit by a truck on my bicycle, my shoulder was finally fixed.


That brings us to the end of the Summer semester. It’s been an interesting year, hasn’t it? I can’t say it’s been boring. Looking back at this time, I had no clue what I was about to get into with the approaching Fall semester which would be my most active semester at MIT yet. Stay tuned for the next post covering September through the end of 2021. I said I wanted to push out four posts in the first four weeks of 2022, but I need to modify that plan a little bit. I didn’t realize how many photos I took on the road trip that I want to share on the site, so instead of posting Part 4, next week I will be updating my photo gallery with more road trip photos. I’ll wrap up the month of January with the final post covering the Fall Semester at MIT. Until then, take care friends!



-Omar


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