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Spring of my Fourth Year

Updated: Sep 26, 2022


Celebrating the end of the semester at a lovely beach in Rhode Island

Hello again, friends. It’s taken a little longer than expected to get this latest post online, but is that such a surprise? I think I’ve established a pattern of posting just a few times a year. It seems to be the schedule that works for me, even though I know blogs should be much shorter, if not also more frequent. I started this blog to keep others informed about my experience in grad school and perhaps post a few extra stories about my life. I’ve realized it takes quite a bit of time and dedication to create this content, and I wish I could publish more often, but life inevitably gets in the way especially this grad life of mine. With the start of the new school year, I figured I should set aside some time now to update the site and publish a new post before things get really hectic again. It’s less frequent and much longer than a normal blog (I hope you have some time for the read), but here’s another post covering the last half of my fourth year at MIT. Enjoy!


Moving into the Spring Semester, I knew that my ability to do extra work for the Student Veterans Association (SVA) was going to be limited since I needed to end the semester with my thesis proposal committee meeting. Sure, I might have been the president of the organization, but first and foremost I was a graduate student. The thesis proposal was an absolute academic milestone I needed to achieve. Unlike the Fall Semester, for the Spring, I needed to make room for both the SVA and my academics.


I don’t know if it’s common among grad students, but at least for me, my thesis topic has changed many times over the years since first starting the program. In my first year, I wanted to continue my work from my master’s thesis which looked at the specific characteristics of PTSD in the brains of veterans using MEG (magnetoencephalography). I linked up with another student who was working on trying to characterize PTSD using a wearable watch, which I thought was super neat and I happily agreed to join their project. It wasn’t their primary project, so when I came along, they were happy to share the protocol with me and let me take it on as my own. The purpose of the study was to see if there was a physiological marker, such as skin conductance, that could show different responses to a threatening event, such as an electric shock, in people with and without PTSD. If so, then maybe a device could be created to alert someone with PTSD that they are experiencing a triggering event, bringing a level of cognitive awareness that might allow some form of control over their reaction (emotional regulation). It was an interesting project, and there were collaborators from other institutions, but when COVID hit, the project was one of the first things to go. Who was going to allow non-essential human-subjects research during the pandemic? I tried keeping the project alive with some of the hardware programming, which I’ve mentioned before, but with the shutdown and subsequent shifting of international relations, the collaboration was not sustainable and the project fell apart. I needed to come up with a different project for my thesis.


During the shutdown and my time alone during my road trip, I found that being alone had a significant affect on me in ways I had not experienced before. I became interested in the literature on loneliness, and I thought about how I could incorporate loneliness into my work. By the time my qualifying exams came around in Year 3, I came up with a project that would look at the interaction between loneliness and PTSD. Does loneliness increase PTSD symptom severity? It was an interesting project, but not one that would change much in the way of treatment. Another issue was that if I was going to focus on veterans as my target population, I would need to find a lot of funding for recruitment, and I would likely need to work with the VA. Getting approval from the VA would take more time to arrange than my thesis would allow. I had demonstrated to my committee that I knew how to design a good research question and was able to pass my qualifying exams with this proposal, but I needed think of a better project that would actually be feasible for my thesis project. I had a year to figure it out. Funding is probably the biggest barrier to any project. How could I pay for the study procedures and also pay the participants? Most of the funding opportunities that are available are fellowships or training grants that would pay for my education (tuition, stipend, etc.) but not necessarily for the specific research project that I’d conduct.


One day I was listening to NPR and heard that MIT and Harvard were receiving $9 million to conduct research on cannabinoids. That’s a lot of money! When I asked my advisor about it, he mentioned that his lab received part of those funds. Really? I needed money for a study and there’s a bunch of it sitting in an office with the stipulation that it must be spent on researching cannabinoids? Sounds like a recipe for successful thesis project! I suggested the idea to my advisor, and he asked me to look into the literature and see what I could find. Is there a worthy project out there?


Almost immediately after doing an initial search, one area of research that had some evidence for the use of cannabidiol (CBD), a component of cannabis that does not get people high, was for the treatment of social anxiety disorder, a mental health condition that is often dismissed as shyness but truly causes a lot of stress for a lot of people. In fact, it is the most prevalent anxiety disorder in the US. In social anxiety disorder, or SAD, people avoid social situations in which they feel they may be judged, which often leads to increased loneliness and depression. Much of the research into SAD focuses on treatments with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), but those treatments are only effective in about half of the people who seek treatment. There needs to be a better solution, and CBD looks promising. However, the research on the use of CBD for SAD is not that rigorous. What that means is there is room for improvement, and nothing makes better research than more funding. This was an opportunity.


I took this information back to my advisor in the fall semester. We could do a study using CBD in people with SAD and measure their brains using fMRI. It would be the first to do so, and anything we’d find would be useful. If it actually works, then great, people can now have another drug that might work for them and not have as many side effects. If it doesn’t work, well, that’s good too because we’d finally know that CBD is not useful for SAD. Either way, the knowledge would be useful, and it would be fun to do my thesis on a hot topic that might be interesting for the wider world. I’d have to shift the focus of my PhD away from veterans and PTSD and towards the general public with SAD, but it might end up being useful for even more people.


In January 2022, my advisor connected me with some other researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) who were also interested at looking at the effects of CBD in social anxiety disorder. This was perfect since there weren’t any people at MIT looking into this topic in a clinical population. There wasn’t a lot of experience that I could rely on within the department. The MGH team could be a major source of support for me throughout the project. Once we started meeting in January, it seemed like we were on a path to creating a solid research project. A nice plan was starting to come together.


In January, I was also still recovering from the whirlwind that was the Fall Semester. I had ended my last post saying that I felt a bit burnt out, and it was certainly true. The SVA was a lot of work, and although we were starting to see some real results, I was also realizing that I only had so much time available in the day. I couldn’t spread myself too thin anymore without burning myself out. With my thesis project, it seemed like the MGH team would be a wonderful group to work with to bring an idea into reality. With the SVA, I needed to dial it back and keep things in perspective. There was only so much time that the team had available, so our reach could only go so far, and that was okay. We were going to have a good semester.


The Spring Semester officially started on January 31st, and at that time I had 4 major projects going on at the same time: my thesis project, running the SVA, the Stanford coil project, and an fMRI analysis project. Finding balance was going to be the key to success, but as you might expect, it was going to be a bit challenging. It’s also a bit challenging to write about my experiences in a coherent way, so I apologize in advance for jumping around a bit in this post. I’ve decided to center the post on these four topics over the months of the semester. Let’s see how well that method of storytelling works for us.


New England turkeys in January

February 2022

As a fourth-year grad student, I needed pass my thesis proposal committee meeting before the end of the school year. That entailed writing the thesis proposal and presenting it to the committee, consisting of four professors of my choosing, who would evaluate the merits of the proposal, provide any suggestions they thought might improve the design, and decide if I’m ready to proceed with executing the proposal. The process was remarkably similar to the qualifying exams, with both a written and oral component. While the process of the thesis committee meeting was known, the content of my presentation was still in the air since the proposal was not written in February. It would be my job over the semester to write and refine that proposal: investigating if CBD is beneficial for those with social anxiety disorder.


I also wanted to focus more on community building with the SVA. We started the semester with a few events geared towards resume writing and interviewing skills for veterans which turned out to be a great success. Over the fall semester, we worked with the folks at the Career Advancement and Professional Development office to plan a few workshops that would be geared specifically for veterans entering the workforce after graduation, so it was really nice to see that work come to fruition and have vets take advantage of the events. In February, we also started interviewing candidates for the inaugural position of Program Administrator for the new Office of Student Veteran Success. Finally, MIT was going to have a paid staff member dedicated to working on military-affiliated student and family member issues.


The month ended with the start of a new war in Europe. I didn’t realize how much my own experience in war would resurface as a result. I knew that if I was having some trouble with things like nightmares, maybe others were too. I created a space for other vets to come together to talk about how the war was affecting them and I quickly realized that there was still a lot of trauma out there amongst our combat veterans. We may not talk about our experiences much in public, but we still carry those experiences with us every day, and yet, we still need to carry on. Creating that space for others to share their experiences helped reinforce why I chose to serve other veterans through my work.


The Stanford Coil project had been taking a bit of a back seat during the Fall Semester, so I decided that I was finally going to jump back on it again for the Spring Semester. When I mentioned this to another student veteran who I met in the SVA, he mentioned that he wanted to work on a technology project for the MIT Sandbox, an accelerator program for small business ideas, but he didn’t have any hardware. As if I didn’t have enough on my plate, I decided to go in with him and enter the MRI coil as a business idea for the Spring 2022 MIT Sandbox competition, and we got in! The coil was still in a simulation stage without a real working prototype, but by entering it into the program, we could receive assistance in trying to build a company around the coil. This program was definitely one of the perks of being at a place like MIT, but it also meant we had to show up to regular meetings which needed to have regular results. While the other student worked on the business side of things, I worked on the simulations. It turned out to be a nice arrangement and a fun way to keep the coil project moving forward.


At the beginning of the semester, I also started working on analyzing a practice dataset of fMRI data. At least it was practice for me. The lab had collected some data that they published in a study looking at the effects of mindfulness training in adolescent children. The effect was small, but present. By practicing the process of taking raw fMRI data and going through the steps of analysis to come to the same conclusion in the paper, I was able to figure out what those precise steps were and get a more thorough understanding of the process I would need to take when I’d run my own fMRI study.


March 2022

Back in the beginning of the Fall Semester, I had a second surgery on my shoulder to repair the injury caused by getting hit by a truck while riding my bike. I’ve mentioned it a few times, both when it happened, and then again when I had the repair surgery, so by this time in March, I had spent many months working on regaining strength in my shoulder, and I was doing well. It was time to finally graduate from physical therapy and continue the exercises on my own. I was happy to finally put this chapter of pain behind me.


The thesis proposal was moving along. I had a general sense of which questions I wanted to ask, and which measures I wanted to use, but it was important to delve even deeper into the literature to begin to develop a theory of what I should expect to see in the study. For example, we know that people with social anxiety have an intense fear of the judgement of others, but how are we going to recreate that kind of condition within the MRI scanner? How can we show differences in the brain between those with SAD that receive CBD and those that receive a placebo? The only way was to see what others have done in the field and try to come up with a new way to ask that question using CBD. More and more it was looking like we needed to conduct a full-on clinical trial. That was going to involve much more regulatory work than a typical graduate thesis, but given my experience, I felt like I was up to the task.


By March, the new hire for the Office of Student Veteran Success was starting to get onboarded. I was so amazed at how quickly MIT was able to install a new Program Administrator when they finally got behind the idea. I can’t thank the Office of the Vice Chancellor and the Office of Graduate Education enough. Of course, there were so many other offices and people involved with bringing better services to veterans at MIT, but without the support of the OVC and OGE, we wouldn’t have gotten as far as we did. At the same time, I was looking to keep the SVA going as a student organization without having to worry about all of the administrative things that our new SVS office could now handle. There was much-needed change that was coming for the SVA.


The intermittent meetings with the Sandbox program kept me working consistently on the coil project. As a scientist, it was so eye-opening to receive mentorship from entrepreneurs. We had to think about market research and customer bases, which I had never considered while working on coil design. It allowed me to take a different perspective which ended up making me think about improving the design. It was suggested that we should get a patent for the coil. We started having to consider just who would own the rights. It seemed like this little side project was blossoming. However, not everything was going as smoothly as I hoped. I ran into a snag with the simulations which started giving me erroneous results. Impossible results. There was something wrong with the model. As much as I had on my plate, I needed to find the time to solve this issue or the project wouldn’t be able to proceed. We were having to hit the brakes.


Meanwhile, I was finding quite a bit of solace with the fMRI analysis process. Where everything else seemed like I was venturing into new territory, I was meeting regularly with the former post-doc in the lab who collected the original fMRI data, and he was guiding me along the process of analyzing his data. It felt like true mentorship. He would show me how to analyze one person in one condition, then allow me to run the process on all of the subjects and see what the group results would be. It was helpful knowing that there would be some significant result waiting for me at the end of the process. I can’t explain just how helpful having this type of guidance was for me. This was really enjoyable. I can’t wait until I’m at this stage with my own data.


Having fun picking out furniture for the new veteran lounge

April 2022

Though I had just finished physical therapy for my shoulder just the month before, in April, my neck and lumbar spine started really causing a lot of pain. Of course, I do have two spinal fusions, and I have become well-acquainted with pain on a regular basis, but it still takes its toll on overall well-being. April was a tough month for pain.


Is pain related to stress? Probably. My thesis committee meeting was finally scheduled for May 20th and there was still much to do with the proposal. More reading. More writing. Am I making the best scientific choices in my project? What is my rationale for the choices I have made? It was certainly helpful to meet regularly with the team from MGH and bounce ideas off of them. Getting a clinical perspective during the design stage has undoubtedly made this a much better research project. I felt like I had all of the tools I needed to pull of a successful thesis proposal committee meeting. I just needed to keep reading, keep writing, and stay focused on having a solid scientific proposal ready in time for my committee meeting.


Things were both picking up and slowing down for the SVA. We were wrapping up a tremendous year for student veterans at MIT. We secured some additional funding for a new lounge, secured a space for the new lounge, and received a donation from the school to have the space painted. When it rains, it pours! I had fun picking out the furniture with our treasurer and getting a company to deliver it to the new space. Finally, we could hold meetings without feeling cramped into a small closet space. Of course, all of these changes were not unnoticed by different offices at MIT, and in April, we received a few awards recognizing our efforts. I never took this work on for any awards, but it was certainly nice to be acknowledged. We wrapped up the month with the grand opening of the new Student Veteran Lounge. It was a great way to bring the year to a close for the SVA.


I also realized that it was time for me to step down from leading the SVA. Not only was my thesis project about to take all of my time, but most of the things that I set out to do when I took over as the president had been accomplished. We secured a number of benefits for student veterans and their families, including emergency child care through the MIT GAIN program. We held the largest Veterans Day celebration at MIT in recent history and had a wonderful time bringing attention to the veteran community. We successfully restored GI Bill benefits for Masters and PhD student veterans, ensuring the benefits that veterans have earned could be used at MIT. In the meantime, we secured additional funding from the school to support those students until those benefits could be fully restored. For the first time, we finally had a paid staff member dedicated to handling student veteran issues in the newly-established Office of Student Veteran Success. We brought the student veteran community closer together by holding events, and we grew the official student organization from 10 to 65 members. We raised nearly $20,000 as a student group to build out our reach, and we quadrupled the size of the Student Veteran Lounge. This school year was a true success for the SVA. I couldn’t ask for more, and now, it was time for someone else run the show. The last remaining task would be to hold elections for next year’s officers.


By now, the issues with the MRI coil were really starting to derail progress on the project. For some reason, when the computer was simulating my latest coil model to visualize the magnetic fields it would produce, the maps that were generated showed very strange behavior that had no reasonable explanation. There was something wrong with the model, and I didn’t have time to investigate it deeply. The Sandbox meetings were the only thing moving forward, and while we continued to learn more about our market segments and how to craft a sales pitch, we needed a working product first, and that wasn’t looking good. The coil project was looking like it would fail.


The fMRI analysis became a bit more interesting in April, with my mentor explaining more advanced techniques of fMRI analysis, but at the same time, the pressure to complete my thesis proposal started to take priority. By this time, I had enough hands-on experience analyzing brain data that I should be able to craft a proper thesis proposal using fMRI as a measure. In addition, I was asked by our department to give a short talk on my research proposal to a public audience within a few weeks. It was not a lot of time to prepare, and short talks (this one had to be 5-7 minutes long) are always a challenge, but I thought it would be a good exercise. Because I needed time to prepare for the talk, the fMRI analysis was put on hold. We would get to more advanced methods after my thesis proposal.

The new MIT Student Veteran Lounge

May 2022

The end of the semester had finally arrived. It was show time. The month started with the Brains on Brains talk. My talk was intended for lay audiences, so I tried to make the presentation a lot like a YouTube video, with popping visuals and lots of transitions. I had fun giving the talk, but when they opened it up to the audience to ask questions, I realized that many people were not taking this research very seriously, with one person commenting, "Well, why not use alcohol instead? Why not use other drugs?" The message was apparently being lost. It was obvious that I hadn’t been clear about distinguishing the difference between the whole cannabis plant and the component of the plant, CBD, that I wanted to study. It served as an important lesson. This topic was going to be a challenging space to work in. I will need to be certain that I am doing the best science to stand up to the criticism, but how I present the message will be just as important. This was going to be an uphill battle.


Although a little discouraging, with the short talk out of the way, I could focus on putting the finishing touches on my thesis proposal. It was crunch time. The written proposal was due on May 9th, so my plan was to get all of the writing finished by the 9th, then start working on the presentation for the 20th. The proposal ended up being a 13-page document with 5 additional pages of references. I certainly did my homework. This was a solid proposal. Could it be better? Sure. Was it designed to answer the question does CBD help those with social anxiety disorder? As far as a single-dose study could do, I believe the answer was yes. Now it was up to the committee. Most students know that their committees rarely go over the written proposal with a fine-toothed comb. The real judgement comes during the oral presentation of the proposal, and I believe that my case was no different. Knowing that, I wanted to make my presentation as clear and visually appealing as possible while conveying the details of the proposal in the best possible way. At least I learned something about messaging from the public talk.


The thesis proposal committee meeting started just as I thought it would. As I started my presentation, committee members asked questions, and I had responses that they were pleased with. Everything seemed to go as planned. Once I finished the full presentation, the real questions started coming in, and this was quite an interesting experience. My committee was comprised of a nice array of professors from related but different fields. My advisor is a cognitive neuroscientist as was the committee chair. For an outside advisor, I asked a practicing psychiatrist to serve on my committee to provide a clinical perspective. Finally, at the last minute, the last cognitive neuroscientist who had a social science background had to cancel and a professor who was a developmental psychologist stepped up to fill in the vacancy. I can’t express how thankful I was to this professor for the last-minute filling of the vacancy since my meeting was scheduled on the last possible day to hold the meeting for the semester.


As I said, it was also quite an experience receiving feedback from such an array of professional backgrounds. It was almost as if each committee member had their own version of what they thought I had said based on their backgrounds, and my job was to clarify the differences as much as possible to ensure that their suggestions would be as helpful as possible. Again, this was a lesson in messaging. If I was unclear, I needed to refine how I was presenting the information. Their feedback was great. They wanted to make sure I had a “safety project” built into the study just in case we didn’t get FDA approval to use CBD in a clinical population off-label. Some expressed concern that we may not find an effect, so they suggested adding another measure to improve sensitivity. These were all great suggestions, and in the end, I obtained approval from the committee. I passed! Now my job was to take the suggestions and work them into the proposal, then start working on making it become a reality.


The search for new leaders for the SVA resulted in two new officers running for the 2022-2023 school year unopposed. We had our new leadership team! I was so happy to see other military-affiliated students stepping up to take the torch on to the next year. It was also very nice to pass the torch to someone else. Not only could I relax and take a break, but others would keep the momentum going. It was such an honor to have had the experience of serving my fellow veterans at MIT through the SVA. Thank you all for the opportunity!


The end of the school year also brought the Sandbox experience to a close. It was evident that the coil project needed to go back to the drawing board. The errors in the simulations were hanging up the entire project. While it was disappointing to let go of the support of the Sandbox team on account of a failed product, I learned so much about bringing products to market and learned that it was not an impossible task. They said they were available if we begin to have a breakthrough on the simulations. At least for now, we were going to have to put the coil project on hold for the summer.


Flying the AN-225 in FSX

June 2022

By the end of the semester, I started to feel a bit of that same burnout from the winter again, and I wanted to take a break. With the thesis proposal out of the way and the SVA handed off to new leaders, there was a bit of relief. With the little bit of extra time I had, I ended up buying a copy of Microsoft Flight Simulator X to see if I could learn how to fly. I don’t know why, but recently I started getting into aviation, and it is so much fun! I think I might even call it an obsession. I’ve caught the bug, as they say. I don’t know how, or when, but I think I want to get a private pilot license. I'll have to figure out how to find the time.


The thesis committee suggested a few things that I needed to adapt into my study. I needed to incorporate those suggestions then submit the proposal for the appropriate approvals. I wanted to take a vacation in July, so I set my own deadline of July 1 to submit my first version of the protocol to our institutional review board, or IRB. These are the folks who decide if we can run a study with human subjects at MIT. Since my proposal was a clinical trial, the process for approval was expected to take much longer than a typical neuroimaging study. In addition, I wanted to use a drug, Epidiolex, which is FDA-approved CBD. This is manufactured by Jazz Pharmaceuticals. Jazz has a program where researchers can apply for support if they have a reasonable proposal, so I decided to ask them for the authorization to use their drug off-label, and to give this authorization to the FDA when we ask them for permission to conduct the study. It’s a lot, but not impossible. After quite a bit of editing, I made my own deadline with a solid first version of the clinical trial protocol. It was ready to submit for review.


I also spent part of the month working on creating documents and slides to help the next leaders of the SVA handle the organization. It was so wild to think that just a year before, I was handed the SVA with just an email and left to figure out things on my own. There was never any official handoff meeting or anything like that. The SVA had come such a long way. I felt that continuity was important. We had to keep the momentum going. Once I had a good set of notes, we held our official handoff meeting and I brought on the new team. It was like we had built a bigger plane in mid-flight, and now I was finally handing off the new controls to someone else. They were now going to fly this machine. How wonderful! Now, time to relax with a road trip.


So, that’s where I’ll leave it for now. That was the first six months of my 2022. It’s been a fun ride. I hope reading this post has also been fun and not a completely incoherent, crazy mess. Let me know what you think. Until next time, take care friends!


-Omar

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