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Summer Internships: Leah Barz-Snell '24

August 21, 2023
Headshot of Leah Barz-Snell

Name: Leah Barz-Snell
Class Year: 2024
Major: Neuroscience
Hometown: Weston, MA

Internship Organization: Massachusetts General Hospital Brain Modulation Lab
Job Title: Research Intern
Location: Boston, MA

What's happening at your internship? We would love to hear what kind of work you are doing!

My internship is in a functional neurosurgery research lab called the Brain Modulation Lab (BML) at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). The lab specializes in movement disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and essential tremor. They are working on many different research projects that focus on brain electrophysiology and the behavior of patients undergoing surgical treatments to treat the disorders listed above (and more)! One of my main responsibilities has been creating a database on a program called Redcap. This database is meant to provide comprehensive, de-identified case files of every single epilepsy patient the lab has treated. To create these case files, I read these patients’ entire case histories on an electronic medical health records system called Epic. Through Epic, I compile a wide range of information that would be necessary for any researcher who wants to use the data of the lab’s epilepsy surgery patients but does not have the security clearance to access that information. This information includes details about patients’ seizure history, semiology, etiology, past treatments (i.e., all anti-epileptic drugs they’ve trialed or diets they’ve tried), summaries of electroencephalogram (EEG) findings from stays in the hospital’s epilepsy monitoring unit (EMU), and impressions from all pre-op seizure onset localization imaging. I additionally need to include what surgical treatment the lab performed, like responsive neurostimulation (RNS), deep brain stimulation (DBS), vagal nerve stimulation (VNS), corpus callosotomy, or resection. It has been fascinating to read and write about how these procedures affected the patients years after they received them. Aside from RedCap entries, I have been helping researchers in the lab with different random projects. One of my favorites has been helping one coworker in a joint project with MIT. For this, I have been able to work on the code for a task on Matlab that research patients in the EMU will complete once they have intracranial EEG (sEEG) electrodes implanted. We are hopefully going to have a patient agree to research soon, so I’m excited to see the data from the task! Lastly, I’ve been able to observe any neurosurgeries my PI does. So far, I’ve been able to stand in the OR and watch a VNS and an awake research stage II DBS which was an incredible experience. I hope to also see a resection and sEEG implantation before my time at MGH ends.

Why did you apply for this internship?

I had actually heard about some of the work my PI is doing with deep brain stimulation to treat epilepsy in a class at Haverford. I read many of the papers that the BML has recently produced and saw that they use a lot of data from EEG and sEEG in their research. I was interested in this because I worked in a lab at Bryn Mawr that used scalp EEG, so the thought of being able to learn more about how scalp EEG and intracranial EEG are used in the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy was exciting to me. The work the neuroscientists are doing in the BML is incredible, so I was also eager for the opportunity to work with them and come to know them both as researchers and people.

What is something you have learned from your internship that you didn't expect?

I was expecting to learn a ton of neuroscience for my internship, which I most definitely have. Something unexpected I’ve learned, and arguably more important than all the neuroscience I’ve learned, is the importance of knowing the right questions to ask and who to go with them. Every single person in my lab has been so kind. They’ve all made themselves approachable to me, and have been open to any questions I’ve had. They’ve provided me with wonderful training but also given me room to figure things out by myself as well. When given that room, a skill I’ve discovered to be extremely useful is figuring out what information I need to know but I don’t and then figuring out who the best person for each person would be best to approach with those questions. I’ve been very lucky to have a wonderful supervisor who has helped me figure out which people I should be asking what questions to. Developing is potentially the most important thing I’ve learned through this research experience.

What has been the biggest challenge you have faced at your internship?

I feel I walked into this experience with quite a large amount of imposter syndrome. The people working in this lab are the most impressive and brilliant scientists I have ever met and probably will ever meet. It was intimidating to casually operate in the same space as them, especially when they are literally inventing the programs and techniques that are pushing the field of neuroscience further, and I am just beginning to learn about all of it. A concrete example of this would be working with the lab at MIT to code a task in the EMU. Something important to note is I walked into this experience not knowing how to code at all. When my coworker approached me and asked me to help her with this project, I told her I had no coding experience. When I started, I felt like a complete imposter not only because I was jumping into pretty advanced scripts not knowing a thing but also because the people I was working with at MIT are some of the best computational neuroscientists in the world. This served as a sink-or-swim moment for me and my imposter syndrome. Luckily my supervisor understood my background and was very kind as I tried to teach myself the skills I needed to complete my tasks. Ultimately, I was able to look at this whole project as an exciting learning opportunity and let go of enough of the imposter syndrome to learn and complete what I needed to. I still feel quite a bit of imposter syndrome, but working on MatLab scripts with MIT computer scientists as someone with zero coding knowledge was an idea that once served as my nightmare fuel. Now, after having done it, I can see that I was capable the entire time; I just actually had to believe I was.

Visit the Summer Internship Stories page to read more about student internship experiences.