by Rachel Payne
This article first appeared in the TCC Magazine
At the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, Dr. Shawn Nelson Schmitt examines patients’ cognitive functions. Some of them have experienced traumatic brain injury (TBI). Others have progressive memory loss caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s. Some have psychiatric symptoms. It’s work he finds fascinating and personally fulfilling.
Pathway to a Ph.D.
Though academic achievement has always come easily to Dr. Nelson Schmitt, a straightforward path to a scientific career was never assured. He grew up in a single-parent household with limited resources, and English was his second language. His first was American Sign Language (ASL).
“My mother was an Alaskan Native who moved to Washington to attend the Washington State School for the Deaf in Vancouver, WA. She was the only Deaf child of twelve siblings.”
Dr. Nelson Schmitt came up through Tacoma’s Eastside public schools.
“I enrolled in the Running Start program at TCC because I wanted more of an academic challenge. Additionally, I did not fit in well with most of my classmates in high school, so I felt that I would benefit from a different environment. I was particularly drawn to TCC because the student population was so diverse.”
In Running Start, Nelson Schmitt found a challenging academic atmosphere – and a mentor who believed he was up to the challenge.
“I attribute much of my perseverance to your encouraging words and rigorous academic standards,” he wrote to Running Start Advisor Christy Perotti, who is included in the acknowledgements section of his dissertation.
It’s possible for a motivated Running Start student to graduate from TCC with both and AA degree and a high school diploma. And Nelson Schmitt was motivated. He focused on his studies and his job – tutoring his fellow students in writing and math through TCC’s Writing and Tutoring Center. Graduating with an Associate’s Degree with High Honors in 2002, named Sociology Student of the Year, he was off to Dartmouth on a full four-year scholarship.
In Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Nelson Schmitt took a course on psychological assessment.
“I became fascinated by the idea of using test data to better understand the relationship between brain and behavior.”
After completing a degree in Psychological and Brain Sciences, Nelson Schmitt moved to Washington, D.C. to begin the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program at Gallaudet University, which serves America’s Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community. He finished the program last May.
“I am now the first in my family to finish high school, the first to graduate from college, and the first to complete an advanced degree.”
Launching a Scientific Career
Currently, Dr. Shawn Nelson Schmitt is part of a research team headed by Dr. Mark Ettenhofer. Their team is testing a new driving rehabilitation system for its effects on brain performance and driving safety in civilians, active-duty military, and veterans who have experienced TBI. The virtual reality system, called NeuroDRIVE, has been designed to train patients on attention and working memory tasks applied to realistic driving scenarios.
“This work may allow individuals with TBI to regain some of their independence post-injury,” said Dr. Nelson Schmitt. “Increased independence is associated with decreased symptoms of depression.”
Soon, Dr. Nelson Schmitt will conduct neuropsychological assessments for patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“The goals of these assessments are to identify an individual’s strengths and weaknesses and determine how best to utilize their strengths and build upon their weaknesses. For example, if an individual has difficulty remembering visual information but has no problem remembering verbal information, I might recommend that they use their verbal skills to help improve their learning and recall of visual information.”
Advice for Current Students
So, aside from focusing on schoolwork, what’s the secret to making the leap from Running Start student to scientist?
“Obtaining real-world experience is invaluable in STEM fields,” said Dr. Nelson Schmitt. “Seek out opportunities to train with and/or work for people who do what you want to do.”
Dr. Nelson Schmitt noted that his first research opportunity came through a college volunteer position. He showed interest in the results he was entering into a spreadsheet, and discussed them with the professor. The volunteer position became a part-time job. Then he joined the lab as a researcher, and he was able to propose the study that became his thesis topic.
“That first volunteer position in college triggered my current career trajectory.”
Also: Don’t leap to the conclusion that you can’t handle the math.
“Before you assume that math will be a barrier to gaining entry into a science field, investigate what type of math is required and its relevance to your future work,” said Dr. Nelson Schmitt. “Certainly, there are areas of science that are more math-focused than others, but understanding the role that math plays in a given field may deepen your understanding and appreciation of it.”