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Young Investigator: Sara Pardej

By November 22, 2021January 17th, 2024Awards & Grants

The Young Investigator Award, initiated in 1985, is the Children’s Tumor Foundation’s longest-running award program and provides two-year salary support to early-career NF researchers to help them get established as independent NF investigators. Since its inception, several YIAs have made groundbreaking research findings and notable publications through this program, and many have advanced to become leaders in the NF research and clinical communities.

New for 2021, additional funding and duration have been available, extending the support to span 3 years. Now, we’re introducing some of these researchers: Jamie Grit tells us about her research and being part of the community.


What are you hoping to learn from this project?
At this point, there is very little research studying the EEG (electroencephalography) profile of children with NF1. EEG is a very helpful technique that is used in both research and clinical settings. It can tell you information about when different parts of the brain are activating. In my study, I am hoping we will learn a lot about how children with NF1 pay attention, and whether there are differences between children with NF1 in comparison to children with ADHD only and unaffected children in the how their brains respond to tasks that do require sustained attention. This kind of research could not only lead to a better understanding of attention in NF1, but also provide a new way to track intervention progress at the neural level. So, if we are able to pinpoint a specific pattern of brain functioning in attention tasks that is unique to NF1, we can track that pattern over time to identify if a treatment for attention is working at the neural level, perhaps even before we see any behavioral change.

What are your long-term research goals?
My long-term research goals involve continuing to work with children with NF1 to better understand their behavioral functioning over time. For example, can we identify patterns of development in abilities like attention, language, and broad cognitive abilities across childhood, and if so, can we identify specific time points in a child’s life that would be helpful junctures for intervention? In other words, I hope that my work in the future will lend itself to figuring out early risk factors for difficulties later in life in individuals with NF1 to then be able to identify when and what we can do to help their long-term outcomes.

Tell us about life in a research lab. What’s a typical day look like?
Describing a typical day in the Child Neurodevelopment Research Lab is pretty tricky! I work in a psychology lab, which operates very differently from something like a biology or chemistry lab. We work directly with children, so every day brings its own set of responsibilities and surprises! On data collection days, families come into our bright, colorful lab space (which is filled with adorable stickers!) and we walk them through what they can expect. We set parents and caregivers up with questionnaires to complete, while graduate research staff then complete activities with the kids. I’d say most children really enjoy doing the activities- they range from things like puzzles and riddles to computer games, to drawing tasks. Children also tend to like the EEG process. They wear a cap that resembles a swim cap (but with lots of wires), and they see their brain working! When we are not collecting data, we are usually doing things like scoring, entering data, writing manuscripts, and figuring out ways to continue to improve our research.

What brought you to the NF research field?
As an undergraduate student, I was heavily involved in research and was figuring out which research questions interested me most. Through several years of exploration, I realized that 1) I love working with children and all of the fun challenges that come along with working with young populations, and 2) the intersection of chronic conditions and (neuro)psychological functioning fascinates me. As I was searching for graduate programs, I happened upon my current advisor’s (Dr. Bonnie Klein-Tasman) website, I began reading her behavioral phenotyping work with young children with NF1. Up to that point, I had never heard of NF1 and started reading up on it online. I was surprised to learn how little we understand about the behavioral phenotype of children with NF1, and subsequently how much work needs to be done! This really excited me, especially since this type of research has direct relevance to families and the clinical care of children with NF1.

What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?
When I’m not in the lab, I try my best to be adventurous and creative! I love to travel, hike up mountains, and try to see a little bit more of the world. You can also catch me practicing photography (landscapes are my favorite!), scrapbooking, or organizing my postcard collection.

What does it mean to you to receive this funding from CTF?
As a first-generation college student, I truly never thought I would receive an amazing opportunity like this. This grant allows me to dedicate the time and energy necessary to hone my scientific and analytic skills to become a better researcher. After earning my Ph.D., I hope to become a tenure-track professor, and this opportunity grants me the ability to make sure I am prepared for that career trajectory. Additionally, I’m able to spend my time doing what interests me. I genuinely love the work that I do with children with NF1; they are such a blast to work with, and I am so happy I am able to dedicate the time necessary to build relationships with those in the community and to be able to conduct research with the goal of helping to improve their quality of life.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I am very grateful for this opportunity I would like to thank CTF, my advisor, Dr. Bonnie Klein-Tasman, and my labmates for their continued support! I am appreciative of all of you.