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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Virginia Gallagher, Clinical Psychology PhD Program

Virginia Gallagher

Virginia Gallagher, a fourth-year student in the Clinical Psychology PhD Program, studies the risk factors, protective factors and consequences of head trauma sustained by athletes in the laboratory of James Reilly, PhD, associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Where is your hometown?

I grew up in the Washington D.C. area.

What are your research interests?

My research aims to understand the neurobiological and psychological risk factors, protective factors and consequences of head trauma sustained by athletes. Recent projects in my lab have focused on female-specific factors, such as how oral contraception or menstrual cycle phase are related to head trauma outcomes. (Read our recent studythat found that female sex and hormonal contraceptive use can affect concussion outcomes.) We also have multiple ongoing projects where we use eye movement testing, a lab-based measure of cognitive and sensorimotor abilities, to detect change following concussion (i.e., blows to the head that cause clinical symptoms) and subconcussive hits (blows to the head that are repeatedly sustained by athletes who engage in collision sports like ice hockey, football, rugby and soccer that do not cause immediate symptoms but mayhave adverse long-term consequences).

What exciting projects are you working on?

I am currently immersed in my dissertation work, which is comprised of two main projects. The first project aims to determine whether eye movement testing has adequate sensitivity to detect cognitive and sensorimotor change based on exposure to subconcussive impacts. To test this hypothesis, I am conducting eye movement testing pre-season and post-season with athletes engaged in collision (ice hockey, rugby and soccer) versus non-collision sports (cross country, swimming). Some neuroimaging markers have been sensitive to change pre-season versus post-season in collision sport athletes who sustained repeated blows to the head but there are no clinical measures that have demonstrated adequate sensitivity thus far. Eye movement testing has been sensitive to subtle neurocognitive change in other clinical populations when other measures, such as traditional clinical neuropsychological tests, have not, so we are excited to investigate the use of this tool in collision sport athletes. This project was recently funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke through the F31 fellowship grant mechanism. 

The second project, led byAmy Herrold, PhD, research assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Yufen Chen, PhD, research assistant professor of Radiology, aims to understand how concussion affects the female brain and cognition. In this project, we have controlled for the effects of the menstrual cycle and hormones at the time of neuroimaging, as these factors are often overlooked in female athlete studies and may have important implications on outcomes.

We have been fortunate to work closely with clinicians at Northwestern Health Services and Northwestern Athletics in Evanston on these projects. This close collaboration has been integral to the success of our research.

What attracted you to the PhD program? 

When I applied to graduate school in 2014, my ideal program was one housed in an academic medical center in which scientists and clinicians worked closely together and had strong training in both clinical and research domains. I also wanted to specialize in neuropsychology and continue engaging in head trauma research. The clinical psychology PhD program at Feinberg was the perfect fit with these goals in mind!

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

The best part has been working with my research mentor, James Reilly. He strikes the perfect balance of providing sound guidance and expertise based on his years of experience as a clinician and scientist in neuropsychology but also allows, and encourages me, to pursue my own hypotheses and work with a sense of independence. He also has been wonderful at teaching me how to strive for work-life balance while pursuing ambitious short- and long-term professional goals.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

The faculty I have had the pleasure of interacting with at Feinberg are distinctly passionate about training the next generation of psychologists/neuropsychologists. Faculty members in my department often have clinical responsibilities in addition to their research, teaching, mentorship and administrative responsibilities. Despite being pulled in many directions, they are always available to students and trainees and commit a significant amount of time to training and education.

What do you do in your free time?

Staying actively connected with family and friends is very important to me, so I try to make plenty of time for those relationships. In my free time, I also enjoy staying physically active and, perhaps most of all, eating delicious food. In the summer, I love being outside in Chicago, whether that’s biking along the lake shore or having a picnic at the beach. In the winter, I enjoy more indoor activities like yoga and cooking up new recipes!

What are your plans for after graduation?

After graduation, I hope to complete a postdoctoral fellowship in neuropsychology. Eventually, my goal is to be a neuropsychologist at an academic medical center conducting both research and clinical work.

Connect with Virginia on LinkedIn.