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Spotlight on Amanda Nili: PhD Student in Clinical Psychology

Created: September 3, 2018
Amanda Nili

Amanda Nili is a PhD student in clinical psychology at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences supported by the Feinberg School of Medicine and The Graduate School. She studies attentional dysregulation, emotional dysregulation, and cognitive function in young children. Amanda was recently awarded a research supplement from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to promote diversity in health-related research.

How would you describe your research and/or work?
My work aims to figure out early signs of ADHD and emotional dysregulation. A lot of what I do in my lab is to try to determine what cognitive functions (and dysfunctions) drive those disorders (and their co-occurrence) across a lifespan. In practice, we do this by interviewing parents and asking them to fill out questionnaires about their child's behavior, and we invite children (aged 12 months to 11 years) to come into the lab, where we engage them in activities and games with and without their parents that indicate their attention and emotion regulation abilities.

What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
I always knew that I had some interest in psychology. Early career plans spanned from working as a clinician to editing pop psychology publications. I ended up in research after doing some volunteer work in an education sciences lab at my undergrad institution, University of California, Irvine. Although much of what I did there was unrelated to the interests I have now, my time as an assistant, and later, administrator for education science research projects helped me learn most of the skills I use in my current developmental/clinical research!

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
I first decided that I wanted to research comorbid mood and attention disorders when I was interviewing a college student for a study on teaching practices in STEM higher education. He talked about the effect that having ADHD had on his experience in large lecture halls, and I noticed that many of the symptoms he mentioned (fidgetiness, physical discomfort, and the compulsion to leave) sounded like other clinical disorders that I had learned about in my classes. The idea that behavior and symptoms don't fall into neat clinical categories is by no means new, but this was the moment when I decided to pursue a research career examining the "cross-over" symptoms between ADHD and other commonly co-occurring disorders. I chose to work with children to mitigate a lot of the distress that adolescents and adults with ADHD will later experience as they try to navigate traditional education settings.

Why Northwestern?
I chose Northwestern because my program--a clinical psychology PhD housed in an academic medical center--is the only one at an R1 university in the U.S., and because working here means that I get to work in Laurie Wakschlag's Developmental Mechanisms Program. On my interview day, Dr. Wakschlag informed me that I would have the opportunity for a training experience through the Institute for Innovations in Development Science’s graduate student cluster. Because my work draws on multiple fields (neuroscience, developmental, and clinical psychology), I knew I would need access to experts in all these fields who had a vested interest in studying early development through multiple lenses. I was particularly keen on working with my chosen mentor because I needed someone with high energy and higher standards to help me grow professionally. Now that I have been at Northwestern a full year (!), I find that this same drive for excellence is present at every level of those engaged in research.

How do you unwind after a long day?
I read and drink copious amounts of (decaf) tea. I also like to try cooking new, overly-complicated recipes, and spend time catching up with my family and friends (both in Chicago and across the U.S.).

What books are on your bedside table?
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. These are two of my favorite books, and I reread them often.

What inspires you?
People's stories inspire me. The work I do is ultimately meant to help individuals, so I try not to lose focus of that. The more I talk with children and their parents about their unique experiences of their own cognitive functions, the better I understand my own research questions and what contributions I can make to this field. Beyond being critical for my science, this approach--keeping the individual in constant consideration--is part of my personal research ethics.

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I recently won a diversity supplement from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) that is funding both my research and professional development at Northwestern. This supplement allows me to build on Laurie Wakschlag's When-to-Worry Study, which examines the mechanisms and implications of early irritability. As part of my supplement, we are intensifying our focus on attentional dysregulation and executive functions as they develop from ages 1-5. Because my project studies attention at multiple levels (brain structure, task performance, and observed behavior), I get to draw on the multidisciplinary expertise afforded to me by my participation in the DevSci Institute's graduate student cluster. This connection with various experts informs my work and has been another great lesson in team science.

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