Megan Blackwell in office at Salem VA
4.23.2019
By Sharon Nanz '09

Research goes off campus

At Roanoke, research is not confined to the campus labs and classrooms. Through a unique partnership between the College and the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Roanoke students have the opportunity to work off campus in a large medical setting.  

Under the mentorship of Salem VAMC principal investigators, students can undertake a research assistantship, an honors project or an internship. Students choose from a variety of projects for which they conduct research, analyze data and present their work.  

Dr. Phil Lehman, clinical and research practicum coordinator at the medical center says that students seeking a career in the medical field gain intangible benefits that enrich the research experience. “There’s a transition from college culture to professional medical culture,” he says. “and being able to navigate that is a learning process that is very valuable to the students.” 

The seeds of the program date back to about 2010, when the College added a neuroscience concentration. At about the same time, the campus chapter of Psi Chi, the national honor society for psychology students, toured the VAMC, which has psychology staff of approximately 65 and a mental health staff of about 200. 

Soon after, Roanoke psychology students began research assistantships in an informal arrangement with the VAMC under the guidance of Roanoke Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. David Nichols. He is the forefather of the current program, says Dr. Brian Shenal, who is the psychology chief and associate chief of mental health service at VAMC, as well as an adjunct associate professor of psychology at Roanoke 

Eventually, Shenal reached out to Nichols to discuss the benefits of a more formal arrangement. They and other Roanoke College and VAMC faculty and administration members met in late 2016 to organize the formal collaboration. Roanoke’s Dr. Christopher Lassiter, associate professor of biology and director of undergraduate research, coordinates the program for the College. 

“Graduate school is all about seeking out other opportunities to enhance your training, so starting that in undergrad is a great way to show your tenacity and willingness to learn.”

Lauren Ratcliffe ’17, graduate student, Mercer University

Flexible program offers projects and internships to a variety of majors

The Salem VA Medical Center and Roanoke College Undergraduate Research Experience began with the fall 2017 semester. Prior to this, only psychology students were conducting research at the VAMC, but the collaborative program has since been opened to all majors. Typically, three or four students are accepted per academic year—though Lassiter says that the program may soon expand to include six—and length of student involvement has ranged from one semester to two years.  

Megan Blackwell ’19, a biology major, has been a research assistant in the VAMC’s Center for Aging and Neurocognitive Services (CANS) department for two years. Roanoke psychology professor Dr. Christopher Buchholz recommended the program to her, and she applied. When accepted, she began working with the VAMC’s Dr. Stacy Belkonen on two protocolsLater, Blackwell developed her own research project at the VAMC, which is serving as her honors project for the College and is titled “Cognitive Reserve and Resilience in Traumatic Brain Injury.  

This project has given me a lot of independence as a researcher,” says Blackwell. I was able to design the project, carry out my [institutional review board] proposal, and do the intakes and data analysis for it largely on my own.”  

I have had an incredible experience at the VA…I’ve developed wonderful relationships with the researchers,” she says, “and they have been great mentors for me through the latter half of my undergraduate educationMy time at the VA has been extremely influential in my decision to apply to Ph.D. programs for clinical psychology. 

Cody Dillon-Owens ’19 completed an internship rather than a research project at the VAMC. His goal was to gain experience in a clinical setting, and he assisted Dr. Mamta Sapra as she worked with veterans with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s dementia. He observed meetings between veterans and providers, as well as patient evaluations and neurological testing. He also assisted with data, file and documentation management. 

Overall, I had a great learning experience!” says Dillon-Owens. “I think the internship helped inform me about the paths I could take academically, specifically whether I would want to pursue a clinical psychology program. 

“There’s a transition from college culture to professional medical culture, and being able to navigate that is a learning process that is very valuable to the students.”

Dr. Phil Lehman, Salem VAMC Clinical and Research Practicum Coordinator

Participants succeed at graduate school

In addition to Roanoke undergraduates, the VAMC has graduate students and fellows working there. Shenal says that working with them is a good development tool for Roanoke students, and a key outcome of the program has been the acceptance of its participants to graduate schools. To date, four students from the VAMC-RC program are attending or have completed graduate programs: 

  • Alexandra Grant ’16Saint Louis University clinical psychology doctoral program 
  • Nicole Hurless ’14University of Missouri-Saint Louis counselor education doctoral program 
  • Lauren Kennedy-Metz’14—Harvard Medical School post-doctoral research fellowship; Virginia Tech doctorate in translational biology, medicine, health 
  • Lauren Ratcliffe ’17—Mercer University College of Health Professions clinical psychology doctorate program 

As a Roanoke undergraduate, Ratcliffe assisted with several projects for VAMC researchers and completed an honors thesis project, which she presented at a National Veterans Affairs Research Week event. “Graduate school is all about seeking out other opportunities to enhance your training,” Ratcliffe says, “so starting that in undergrad is a great way to show your tenacity and willingness to learn… One of the most important aspects of this training is how to collaborate with a multidisciplinary team.” 

Shenal agrees and says, “The program benefits the students because it gets them in the hospital, where they rub elbows with physicians, providers, social workers.” 

The VAMC values the research and administrative help it gets from the students, but Shenal says that the biggest benefit to the medical center has to do with making a difference in the lives of the students. “We love it!” he says, “We love to be part of figuring out what someone wants to do.”  

More information and program details can be found here. For a list of currently available projects, please contact the College’s director of undergraduate research at research@roanoke.edu.