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News > Alumni Spotlight > A Five-Year Academic Journey from SJI International to Yale's Neuroscience Research Lab

A Five-Year Academic Journey from SJI International to Yale's Neuroscience Research Lab

Ellen Martin'17, embarked on an academic journey through college that led to numerous opportunities to do research on mental health issues with one of the world's top universities.

It’s hard to comprehend that it’s been a full five years since graduating from SJI International. Somehow, it’s even harder to comprehend that I’ve been pursuing higher education for all these five years. I’m currently in my second year of research in Developmental Neuroscience and Psychopathology, a joint programme shared between University College London and Yale University. As part of my Master's programme, I work in a research lab focusing on families with a high risk of domestic violence and substance use. I’m writing my final thesis on the effects of prenatal exposure to cocaine and the impact this has 30 years down the line. 

If you had asked me five years ago what I’d be doing and where I would be, I certainly would not have said neuroscience research in New Haven, Connecticut. Before this year, I’d been in London for four years and adored most things about it – the underground live music, the art, the bustling city and the Christmas markets… Quite honestly, I was a little nervous about moving to New Haven after living in central London. 

However, I’ve now been in New Haven since late August, and I already know I’d like to extend my time here if possible. New England is indescribably beautiful, especially in the autumn, and New Haven is small enough that you’re sure to bump into someone you know at a café, the library or the climbing wall. This feeling of community is a wonderful change from London, which really can be quite a lonely city despite all the incredible things that go on in that bustling city. 

So, when I’m not working in the lab, you can find me at the climbing wall with my amateur non-competitive climbing team (Go Team Cod, yes, the fish!), playing guitar in the sun, volunteering at the Yale Farm, listening to a local jazz band at a tiny pub, or going for a drive along the coast.


While things are going smoothly for me now at Yale, my academic journey has admittedly been full of uncertainty and trepidation at times. Originally, I was planning on doing Sports Science for my undergraduate degree, and then toyed with the idea of Literature! I finally settled on Psychology at University College London, with a long-term goal in mind of working as a clinical psychologist or therapist. However, in the third year of my Bachelor's degree in Psychology, I worked with a research lab examining the genetic underpinnings of common mental health disorders and, since then, felt that research was the path for me. I’ve been working towards publishing these results and hopefully, I’ll soon have my paper out in a journal. Through a few challenging experiences, I also gradually began to feel that perhaps I was not suited for clinical practice. However, towards the end of my final year, I still did not know what my next steps would be, despite the looming deadlines for postgraduate programmes and job applications. I was torn quite painfully between undertaking a clinical psychology postgraduate programme, looking for a clinical placement, or undertaking research master's.

I almost didn’t bother applying to my current programme because, frankly, I didn’t think I stood a chance. I hurriedly updated my CV, submitted a personal statement that made me cringe a little, and then applied, mostly because I was enamoured by the prospect of carrying out mental health and neuroscience research at Yale University. Throughout the entire process, I kept thinking “no chance, but it’s worth a shot”. To my surprise and joy, and after an interview I believed I had entirely botched, I was one of the fourteen people offered a place on the programme. On top of that, I learned quite an important lesson, it really is worth a shot. As a woman in STEM, I’ve often felt inadequate and out of place. I almost let these feelings influence my decision to apply to this wonderful postgraduate programme. I’m glad I had a shot and hugely encourage any women interested in STEM programmes to ignore the voice of imposter syndrome that, unfortunately, will always be there. It really is worth a shot.

I accepted the offer and now, I’m enjoying life as a researcher! Working in a research lab isn’t as dry as it sounds. The lab I’m part of has designed an intervention for fathers with a history of violence called “Fathers For Change”. We aim to help these fathers better regulate their emotions and work through their pre-existing mental health and substance use problems, to reduce violence in families. When I’m not researching the effectiveness of the “Fathers For Change” programme, I’m analysing 30 years’ worth of data following up on individuals who were exposed to cocaine while they were in the womb. Ultimately, I hope to examine how we can provide support to these at-risk individuals, and how we might prevent the development of behavioural and mental health problems that can arise due to prenatal exposure to cocaine. 

Work can be quite draining at times, particularly when I’m seeing participants in the Fathers For Change study. After asking them lots of very sensitive questions related to domestic violence, drug use and psychological symptoms, I interviewed them for around half an hour to ask about their relationship with their children and also to ask them about their early life experiences. I do end up hearing quite a lot of upsetting things that I sometimes spend the rest of the day thinking about. However, I’m fortunate enough that my supervisor is happy for me to work remotely when I’m not working with patients. This means that when I’m not interviewing participants, I’m often at Yale’s gorgeous libraries or even working at my friend’s house by the beach, which is certainly helpful when working in a challenging field.

I don’t know what next year will hold. Perhaps I’ll work as a researcher here for another year as I am quite passionate about the Fathers For Change programme, but I’ve learnt that plans often change. I’ve learnt that it’s okay not to know exactly what you want to do when you want to do it or even where you will do it. It’s okay to be uncertain about the future. Of course, it’s important to research your options and take the necessary steps to meet those goals, but sometimes opportunities appear out of nowhere, in the most unexpected of places.  At least that seems to have been the pattern of my academic career so far.

I suppose my hope for SJI International is that it’ll be a place that encourages a balance between hard work and appreciation for life on this beautiful planet. Additionally, I hope it continues to foster genuine kindness and care for people on the margins of our society, both locally and abroad. I can say it certainly contributed to my own interest in mental health and is partly why I’ve ended up as a mental health researcher in New Haven!  


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