Neuroscience undergraduate student studies mental illness
“Preston is a great researcher and great human, aside from being someone who vastly understates himself. He helped to get this lab going when Dr. McCleery first started it up. He was the first member of the lab – before any graduate students or post-docs. He loves what he does, and he goes beyond the lab.” -Melinda Licht, program coordinator, Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates,
Student: Preston Johnson
Hometown: Coal City, Illinois
Faculty mentor/advisor: Amanda McCleery, PhD, assistant professor, psychological and brain sciences
What is your degree program and expected graduate date? I am currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in neuroscience with a minor in theatre arts and a certificate in clinical and translational science. I plan to graduate in May 2023.
Please describe your research: In Dr. McCleery’s lab, we study serious mental illness (schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), and the factors that contribute to the social, occupational, and daily functioning in this clinical population. We use a variety of methods that allow us to study different aspects of one’s day-to-day life, including surveys and clinical interviews, performance-based tasks, and recording methods to measure biological signals, such as heart rate and brain activity. Overall, the goal is to better understand the development of serious mental illness and what we can do to better predict functional outcomes.
In simple terms, why does this research matter? A lot of previous work on serious mental illness has focused on treating pronounced clinical symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions, but these illnesses still have detrimental effects to one’s livelihood even if clinical symptoms are controlled. In our lab, we study the impact of other important factors on disability in people with serious mental illness, including information processing skills, social cognition, and motivation. By better understanding how serious mental illness extends beyond clinical symptoms, we can gain a better understanding of the underlying causes of illness and the factors that contribute to daily functioning, which can guide development of effective intervention strategies.
How soon after starting at the University of Iowa were you able to participate in research? I got involved in research starting at the beginning of my sophomore year when Dr. McCleery first arrived at Iowa.
How has being involved in research made you more successful at the University of Iowa? Being involved with research has enabled me to be a better student inside and outside of the classroom. The questions that I ask with my research allow me to ask better questions in my coursework while simultaneously exposing me to the real-life applications of this material. Research at Iowa has also connected me with some of the most influential faculty that have helped me to explore numerous career opportunities that I never even knew existed.
What are your career goals and/or plans after graduation? After graduation, I plan on taking a gap year to continue exploring research and learning new techniques. Following this, I plan on applying to MD/PhD programs so I can become a physician-scientist and one day run my own lab while treating patients.