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Occupational science student awarded NIH postdoctoral fellowship

Occupational Science Student Awarded NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship
USC doctoral candidate Sook-Lei Liew

USC doctoral candidate Sook-Lei Liew MA ’08 was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), based at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Liew, a Ph.D. candidate in occupational science in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC, is a member of the social cognitive neuroscience research laboratory directed by Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, assistant professor co-appointed to the Brain and Creativity Institute, housed at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.

As a doctoral student, Liew has explored the human brain’s ability to understand the actions and intentions of others, and how experience and disease might modulate activity in neural networks. Specifically, she has studied how different regions of the brain are affected after neurological injury, such as stroke, and how the regions may be engaged through alternative means during post-injury rehabilitation to enhance social and motor abilities. For example, one promising technique is to have patients with muscle weakness caused by neurological injury simply observe actions of other people to stimulate damaged motor regions.

Beginning in August, Liew will conduct research at the NINDS under the direction of senior investigator Leonardo Cohen. Cohen, a neurologist by training, uses advanced imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography scans, to study the mechanisms underlying the human central nervous system’s ability to change as a result of environmental input, known as neuroplasticity. Cohen’s work also explores how those mechanisms might be applied to therapeutic approaches.

Liew, who was selected as a postdoctoral fellow through the NIH’s Intramural Research Training Award program, earned her master’s in occupational therapy at USC and is a practicing occupational therapist. She will research neuroplasticity and motor-skill learning in healthy patients, as well as ways of promoting adaptive cortical reorganization in patients who have sustained a stroke or traumatic brain injury. This work will build upon her research experience at USC, where she has studied the ways that the human brain supports the ability to understand and make sense of other peoples’ actions and intentions.

Ultimately, Liew is optimistic that discoveries from her research will be translated into clinical therapy interventions that improve the quality of everyday lives.

“I believe occupational therapy is one of the most privileged health professions because we can focus on knowing our clients in a dynamic, one-on-one setting and create a rehabilitation program with them to achieve their own goals,” Liew explained. “I think that working with a person in this way has the potential to harness neural mechanisms associated with motivation and attention, which may enhance motor plasticity and rehabilitation in ways that have not been tapped into yet.”

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