Nursing alumna delves into neuroscience research at Case Western

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2017 graduate conducting brain research on U2 pilots at Case Western Reserve University

Some people would define Megan Alder as an “almost-Lipscomb Lifer.” She came to Lipscomb Academy in the second grade and graduated in 2013. Then she spent three years at Lipscomb University and graduated from the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in 2017.

Some people would define her as a diabetic. She was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when she was 11, and has participated in many clinical trials at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She was the first pediatric patient at Vanderbilt to receive an artificial pancreas this past spring.

But most people would simply define her as extraordinary, as she has drawn from her own health experiences and early education to fuel a passion for research. She was working in Vanderbilt’s neurology sleep department with Dr. Beth A. Malow, an M.D. and renowned researcher in the sleep in autism field, before she even finished her bachelor’s.

And now, having graduated, she is working on her Ph.D. in nursing neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, with mentor Michael Decker. Her research uses the hyperbaric chambers at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and involves U2 pilots as research participants. She will study the neurologic abnormalities (i.e., decompression sickness) leading to white brain matter hyper-intensities.

Alder was accepted to graduate schools at Vanderbilt and other universities, but she chose Case Western because there her research is supported by the Legacy Research Fellowship Award and a National Research Service Awards Pre-Doctoral Training Grant (T-32) from the National Institutes of Health (under Shirley Moore), which provides a full-tuition stipend, a living stipend, travel stipend and an additional educational stipend to study neuroscience. 

Alder’s drive to be a nurse in research was sparked by her experience with diabetes.

“Technology has come so far since I was diagnosed,” said Alder, who has spoken to local groups about her experience with the artificial pancreas. “I like the idea of being able to do research on the unknown. To be exploring what is new and different.”

The NIH is strongly encouraging more nursing research, said Alder, noting that she sees research as the future of nursing. The field often explores more practical, practice-related questions that can end up having a big impact on health facilities’ operation and policies, said Chelsia Harris, Lipscomb’s associate director of nursing for degree development.

During her sophomore year at Lipscomb, Alder got a job at Vanderbilt as a data management specialist. Suzanne Goldman, a nurse who has a Ph.D. in public health and works with autism, was her mentor, along with Dr. Malow.

Alder began working in her department, helping with clinical research, which led to her name included on two published articles: “Teaching children with autism spectrum disorder how to sleep better: A pilot educational program for parents,” and “Characterizing sleep in adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorders;” as well as a third forthcoming article.

“She was very inspirational,” Alder said of Malow at Vanderbilt. “She had two children with autism, so I could really see her passion for working with children with autism.”

Alder with her Vanderbilt mentors, Goldman (left) and Malow (right).

Now at Case Western, Alder is researching how to reduce white brain matter hyper-intensities, which can lead to neuro decline and conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Pilots are a valuable patient population for the study because they spend a lot of time in hyperbaric chambers to avoid decompressions sickness, she said. As she studies to earn her Ph.D., Alder is working with a neuroscientist to conduct MRIs, EEGs and arterial blood gas tests on the pilots.

She also recently took a nursing job with the Jewish Children’s Bureau in Cleveland which serves children suffering from autism.

Alder hopes to bring together her experience with clinical research on autism at Vanderbilt with her current experiences conducting translational research on neural disorders to someday conduct her own translational research on children’s developmental disabilities. Most of the research on autism has been clinical, so she hopes to one day add to the body of knowledge in the field through translational research on autism, she said.

This fall, Lipscomb University hired Harris and Ruth Corey, executive director of the School of Nursing, as part of an overall effort to bring more nursing research into the school’s curriculum. Both women have extensive experience in nursing research.

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