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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Tamar Gefen, Clinical Psychology PhD Student

Tamar Gefen

Where is your hometown?
I am from Woodmere, New York. 

What is your educational background?
I attended Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel and McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where I received a bachelor’s degree in world religions and philosophy.   

What are your research interests?
My research interests involve examining aging trajectories from a multidisciplinary perspective in order to determine how neurodegenerative illnesses, like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, could be prevented or delayed. 

I am also interested in the mechanisms underlying more atypical dementias that onset earlier (before age 65) in the aging process, like primary progressive aphasia and frontotemporal lobar degeneration.

What exciting projects are you working on?
I am most excited about my dissertation project that is a part of the larger “SuperAging Project” at the Mesulam Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (Mesulam CNADC), led by Emily Rogalski, PhD

The SuperAging Project takes a unique approach: instead of concentrating on what goes wrong in the aging process, the study concentrates on what goes right in the aging process by investigating “cognitive SuperAgers,” individuals over age 80 who demonstrate extraordinary memory and thrive in daily life. 

For my dissertation project, I feel fortunate to work under the multidisciplinary mentorship of Sandra Weintraub, PhDChangiz Geula, PhD, and Rogalski—experts in the areas of neuropsychology, neuropathology, and neuroimaging, respectively. Using cognitive assessment, in vivo neuroimaging, and microscopic analysis of brain tissue, I am probing a specific region of the brain in SuperAgers called the cingulate cortex, a key region responsible for attention, motivation, and memory. 

The ultimate goal of this project is to reveal the mechanism of “SuperAging,” which could provide us with strategies for helping ‘normal’ elderly individuals maintain cognitive function, and may even aid in the understanding and prevention of certain dementias.

What attracted you to the Clinical Psychology PhD program?
There really are so many factors; I’ll choose a few. To my knowledge, the Clinical Psychology PhD program is one of the only programs in the U.S. based in an academic medical center and also housed within a department of psychiatry. This setting was attractive to me because it allows students the opportunity to engage in highly translational and multidisciplinary research, while providing clinical training that follows evidenced-based practices. 

I was also attracted to the track-specific curricula, mentoring, and clinical practica that the program offers. Specifically, the Clinical Neuropsychology specialization under the mentorship of Weintraub will provide me with extensive training in neuropsychology in both outpatient and inpatient settings, and research at the Mesulam CNADC focuses on the study of aging from a multidisciplinary perspective, which matches my interests perfectly. 

And finally, my classes overlook Lake Michigan.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?
My best experience thus far at Feinberg was an incredible seminar I took in behavioral neuroanatomy with Juan J. Cayaffa, MD, emeritus professor of neurology. I took this course in my second year of graduate school, and it solidified in me a desire to dissect, literally, the brain and its behavioral functions. Dr. Cayaffa spoke so passionately and eloquently about the beauty and complexities of the human brain while holding one in his hands. Every session was an inspiring experience!

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?
For me, the words that come to mind are passionate, diverse, and collaborative; that is, the faculty members that I’ve been privileged to work with come from diverse research and personal backgrounds, and they all integrate these traits into their styles of mentorship and exciting research discoveries. Faculty members like my mentors at the Mesulam CNADC, Marsel Mesulam, MD, Sandra Weintraub, PhD, Emily Rogalski, PhD and Changiz Geula, PhD, besides being renowned experts in their fields, are incredibly supportive and generous to their students and to their own colleagues, truly valuing multidisciplinary collaboration.  

What do you do in your free time?
In my free time, I enjoy exploring Chicago or just hanging out with friends. My program cohort is a group of five amazing ladies, so we try to get together as often as possible. I also try to visit my family and friends back in New York City.  

What are your plans after graduation?
After graduation, I plan to continue my education and training through the completion of a two-year post-doctoral fellowship in Clinical Neuropsychology.