Doctoral students awarded prestigious NIH F31 fellowships

Lauren Kenney and Adrianna Ratajska
Lauren Kenney and Adrianna Ratajska

Lauren Kenney and Adrianna Ratajska, doctoral students in clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, are each recipients of highly competitive Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health.

Kenney and Ratajska are research assistants in the UF Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, directed by Dawn Bowers, Ph.D., a professor in the PHHP department of clinical and health psychology, director of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the Norman Fixel Institute for Neurological Diseases, and neuropsychology director for the UF Health Movement Disorders & Neurorestoration Program.

“The NIH F31 predoctoral training grants are highly prestigious research awards that go through the gauntlet of rigorous NIH peer review,” Bowers said. “Few trainees apply and of those who do, less than 50% receive funding after the second submission. Both Lauren and Adrianna’s applications were funded on their first submission. This is a testament to the fact that each of these students is an excellent scientist-in-training.”

The Kirschstein F31 program is designed to enable promising predoctoral students who have potential to develop into productive, independent research scientists with the ability to obtain mentored research training while conducting dissertation research.

“Lauren and Adrianna are independent thinkers who addressed uniquely important questions that grew from their master’s research,” Bowers said. “They have strong foundations in rigor and multivariate statistics, and know how to sculpt and communicate their research in a way that is easy to understand and follow.”

Kenney’s project, “Brain Drivers, Cognition, and Parkinson’s Disease: A Psychometric Approach,” is funded by the National Institute on Aging. Working under the mentorship of Bowers and co-mentor Catherine Price, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical and health psychology, Kenney will examine whether cognitive changes in Parkinson’s disease are better explained by a combination of neurobiological risk factors, relative to isolated factors, and whether interactions exist. Improving cognitive risk assessment could both inform clinical prognosis and allow for a more targeted selection of participants into experimental trials aimed at slowing dementia among people with Parkinson’s disease, she said.

“This training grant will provide me with the opportunity to develop competencies in biomarker methodology and interpretation, gain proficiency with related structural neuroimaging metrics, and advance my statistical skills,” Kenney said.

Ratajska’s project will examine whether certain individuals with essential tremor and cognitive/memory deficits have brain changes and elevated plasma-acquired biomarkers that are linked to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. Her project, “Cognition in Essential Tremor: A Neuroimaging and Biomarker Study,” is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute on Aging. David Vaillancourt, Ph.D., professor and chair of applied physiology and kinesiology in the College of Health and Human Performance, serves as Ratajska’s co-mentor.

“Findings from this study have the potential to increase current understanding about the nature of cognitive changes in individuals with essential tremor and aid in identification of those who may be at greater risk of dementia,” Ratajska said. “This training grant will provide me the infrastructure to gain proficiency in state-of-the-art neuroimaging processing and analysis, as well as increase my understanding of neural bases and mechanisms underlying cognitive dysfunction in age-related neurological disorders.”