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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Alexandra Apple, Clinical Psychology PhD Program

Alexandra Apple

Alexandra Apple, a fourth-year student in the Clinical Psychology PhD Program, uses neuropsychological and imaging neurosciences techniques to study mechanisms of cognitive decline in clinical populations, in the laboratory of Lei Wang, PhD assistant professor in the departments of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences and Radiology.

Apple earned her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkley.  After four years of working in cognitive science and medical imaging, she grew to appreciate the variety of approaches needed to understand the brain and was drawn to Northwestern’s Clinical Psychology Program. 

Where is your hometown?

I grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I realized how spoiled I was by the California weather. Living here has definitely made me adjust my definition of winter.

What are your research interests?

Overall, my research interests lie in the application of quantitative methods to understand complex human experiences. Specifically, my focus is on combining neuropsychological and imaging neurosciences to elucidate mechanisms of cognitive decline in clinical populations. In the past, I have studied dementia populations including Parkinson’s, Huntington patients, and dementia of the Alzheimer type and currently I am focusing on cancer patients who undergo cognitive changes as a result of their treatments.

What exciting projects are you working on?

My dissertation research aims to better understand the neural basis of Cancer-Related Cognitive Impairment (CRCI). CRCI is thought to be caused by neurological damage resulting from cancer treatment, however the specific brain networks targeted in this condition are unknown. I am using multi-modal MRI techniques to explore a promising candidate network, the hippocampal-prefrontal network, and its impact on cognition in a breast cancer population. The overarching aim of my study is to examine the structural integrity and functional connectivity of this hippocampal-prefrontal network in CRCI. I hypothesize that impairments in this network contribute to the cognitive deficits reported by cancer patients. Hopefully, results from this study may lead to noninvasive tests for CRCI and aid in the development of treatments to alleviate these cognitive symptoms. This project is of particular interest to me as my mother has experienced cognitive impairments during and after her chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer. I feel very fortunate and grateful to have recently received a Ruth L. Kirschstein Institutional National Research Service Award predoctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to complete this work.

What attracted you to the PhD program? 

Although my Bachelor’s degrees were in psychology and social welfare, upon graduating I worked mostly in the medical imaging and neuroscience fields as a research assistant. After almost four years of working at the San Francisco VA and at UCSF, I gained an interdisciplinary view of cognitive science. Through collaborations with bioengineers, psychologists, and radiologists, I came to appreciate the variety of approaches needed to understand the brain. In order to gain the skills needed to tackle the questions that interest me most – those at the interface of brain function and behavior – I sought out doctoral programs that combine neuroimaging and clinical psychology. I am so happy to have found my home at Northwestern University’s Clinical Psychology PhD program. I was drawn to the program in part due to my mentor Dr. Wang’s expertise in the development of neuroimaging tools, specifically subcortical morphometry, as well as his extensive collaborative network and access to clinical populations. I feel incredibly lucky to also be able to be practicing clinical skills and working directly with patients, which helps give more meaning to my imaging research.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

All of my classmates, teachers, and mentors are what have made my experience at Feinberg so wonderful. I would be nowhere without their support and friendship.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

The faculty in the PhD program are truly amazing. Not only have I learned so much from them but I also feel as though I have gained life-long mentors whom I will able to lean on for advice throughout my career. My research mentor, Lei Wang has been especially supportive and encouraging throughout multiple grant applications and paper rewrites.

What do you do in your free time?

In my free time I like to run by the lake, stalk my friends’ puppies (kidding, sort of) and swing dance. I am also planning my wedding for next summer, which feels less like a hobby and more like a part-time job.

What are your plans for after graduation?

After graduating from Northwestern and completing my postdoctoral training, I hope to work at an academic medical center like Northwestern’s (possibly back in sunny California), where I would be able to combine neuropsychological clinical practice and imaging research involving cognitive decline in clinical populations.