Fellow researches human brain at Mayo Clinic

Senior Yumeng Tao thinks the human brain is the most fascinating part of our bodies.

“It makes us who we are,” Tao says. “However, we know so little about the brain. Many mental and neurological disorders are named based on their symptoms instead of their causes—because we don’t know the cause.”

Tao worked with researchers at the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, as part of her Cornell Fellowship for eight weeks last summer. Dimensions for Health Professions, a pillar of Cornell’s Berry Career Institute, connects students to funded research and internship opportunities in the health and medical fields.

Tao grew up in Qingyuan City, China, and came to the United States specifically to pursue her studies in mental illness and neurological disorders. As a psychology and behavioral neuroscience major, she wanted to explore careers in medicine, which made her an ideal candidate for this internship. The process for selection isn’t easy, however.

“It is a competitive opportunity,” Associate Director of Dimensions Mark Kendall says. “I had her for Introductory Physics I last year, and she excelled. She performed at the top of her class. More importantly, she worked very hard, and truly wished to understand the material. She was genuinely curious about the subject.”

During her internship at the clinic, Tao learned how to score a patient’s muscle movements during the REM sleep stage. She worked with a team of interns and lab techs on Dr. Erik St. Louis’s study of REM sleep behavior disorder (RBD). St. Louis’s lab has developed sleep study analysis methods and diagnostic criteria for RBD. Currently, the lab’s research is focused on the connection between RBD and neurodegenerative diseases like dementia with Lewy bodies, multiple system atrophy, and Parkinson’s disease—hoping to delay the onset or prevent the development of those diseases.

“I feel very proud of being involved in something that’s far beyond just myself,” Tao says.

Tao learned how to interpret the results of an electroencephalogram (EEG), to detect the changes in a person’s brain waves while they are asleep in order to identify what stage of sleep they are in. And she shadowed a neurosurgeon, observing his patient interactions and learning about his lab.

“Treating a patient is not simply just treating an illness or disorder,” Tao says. “It’s also about seeing the patient behind the illness. To provide the best care, we need to take care of the patient in any aspect—physically, mentally, socially, and financially.”

The internship provided Tao the opportunity to work with psychiatrists, neurologists, and other health care providers, which gave her insight into potential career pathways she might consider for her own future.