Over the course of the last academic year, four doctoral students and one recent alumna of Dr. Roee Holtzer’s Neuropsychology and Cognition Lab at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology were listed as first-authors on articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, a rare and significant achievement for students in a PhD program.
Students Jennifer Yuan, Sarah England, Janna Belser-Ehrlich and Elyssa Scharaga and recent alumna Melissa Shuman-Paretsky all published articles about their research in well-respected journals.
“Our students consistently achieve high clinical competence levels, as evidenced by our higher than 90 percent match rate for competitive yearlong clinical internships around the country,” said Holtzer, professor of psychology and neurology at Ferkauf and director of its PhD program in clinical psychology with a health emphasis.
“But to have this number of students publishing first-authored empirical studies in peer-reviewed journals constitutes a major accomplishment for our doctoral students,” he added.
Holtzer’s group seeks to identify cognitive, psychological and brain mechanisms of major public health concerns in populations struggling with aging, dementia and diseases that influence the central nervous system.
As they explore the frontiers of neuropsychology and cognition, students also receive close mentorship and guidance from Holtzer that enables them to dive deep into their own areas of interest.
“Part of my role is to identify the student’s strengths and research interests, developing the right project together with the student,” said Holtzer. “My laboratory benefits from interdisciplinary collaboration with colleagues who also contribute to the research mentorship of our students.”
Yuan’s article, “Functional Connectivity Associated With Gait Velocity During Walking and Walking-While-Talking in Aging: A Resting-State fMRI Study,” was published in Human Brain Mapping and is the first study to use resting-state fMRI, a method of functional brain imaging that can be used to evaluate activity in the brain when the person is not performing a specific task, to examine neural correlates of gait performance.
Her research allows for a new perspective into the connectivity of brain networks at rest and their relation to mobility.
Belser-Ehrlich and Shuman-Paretsky were first authors together on the article “Psychometric Properties of the Brief Fatigue Inventory in Community-Dwelling Older Adults,” published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, which validated a subjective measure of fatigue that could be used when studying community-dwelling older adults. This study extended findings from previous self-report inventories of fatigue in older adults by establishing its relationship with important functional, cognitive, and health outcomes.
England was already a trained silversmith working for a designer when she decided to apply to Ferkauf’s PhD program after becoming fascinated with the connection between the mind and the body. She found the impact of brain injury and neurodegenerative diseases—a common side effect of simply getting older which is studied in Holtzer’s lab—particularly intriguing.
Her research—“Three-level rating of turns while walking,” published in Gait & Posture—focuses on mobility in the elderly, particularly the differences between when study participants reported entering a turn while walking versus when computer software detected them entering a turn.
“We found participants in our study thought they exited turns earlier than our algorithm and clinical rater perceived them to, which could have implications for why so many elderly individuals fall while making turns,” said England.
For Scharaga, first author on the article “Preliminary Findings of The Brief Everyday Activities Measurement (BEAM) in Older Adults,” published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, the decision to study functional abilities and the effect of aging on cognitive functioning in Holtzer’s lab was personal.
“Being a caregiver for family members with neurological disorders made me interested in treating and conducting research in the field of neuropsychology, specifically in older adults,” she said. “Dr. Holtzer’s research on the relationship between mobility and cognition in healthy aging has provided me the ability to expand my knowledge of neuroanatomy and neurological diseases specific to the geriatric population. Training in Dr. Holtzer’s lab has given me firsthand experience working within a collaborative interdisciplinary team. This has proven to be invaluable as I progress in my doctoral training and begin to start my path as a clinical neuropsychologist.”
For his part, Holtzer is extremely proud of his students’ publications. “It is a pleasure to mentor and to observe the students’ growth and professional development,” he said. “It is important to recognize, though, that while these articles are impressive, other studies that have been first-authored by recent alumni of the lab or our current students are still being published or submitted for publication—it’s a continuous process.”