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Researcher of the Month

January 2019

Lee Ann SantoreLee Ann Santore

Biochemistry major, Honors College, Class of 2019

Research Mentor:  Dr. Matthew Lerner, Psychology 


Lee Ann Santore is a senior Biochemistry major in the Honors College. With the added perspective of being a competitive swim coach, Lee Ann Santore’s advice to other students is to “Dive in head first” to research, something she herself did after only one semester as an undergraduate at Stony Brook. “I had done a lot of work in high school teaching kids on the spectrum how to swim …so when I later came to Stony Brook and heard that there is a whole research lab dedicated to Autism Spectrum Disorder research, I wanted to join it!”

Lee Ann has been an active team member of the Social Competence & Treatment Laboratory of Dr. Matthew Lerner (Dept. of Psychology) for 3 years, and is currently completing her senior honors thesis on "Assessing Primary Care Providers’ Knowledge of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).”  She cares passionately about early intervention and improving the pipeline of ASD diagnosis; and has been involved in designing and implementing a survey that will be distributed to 100 primary care providers with IRB approval and used to assess factors that impact timely diagnosis of ASD.  In addition to the hours she dedicates to clinical work with individual families/children involved with the lab, Lee Ann also worked her way up to being the lab's Undergraduate Research Coordinator – a role that involves managing & training other research assistants in visit procedures, how to administer electroencephalograms (EEGs) and IQ tests, collect medical information, and administer and score various neurological and physiological assessments.  

Lee Ann has presented her research at the Annual Convention of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies in San Diego, CA and Washington D.C. (2017, 2018); the annual meeting of the International Society for Autism Research in Rotterdam, the Netherlands (2018); and the annual URECA symposium (2018). She has co-authored several academic poster presentations, and recently co-first authored a paper with graduate student Erin Kang on “Self Reported Social Skills Importance Ratings, not Social Skills themselves, Predict Sociometric Status in Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder ”  (under review). Lee Ann is the recipient of several URECA travel grants, as well as URECA summer program award to support her research activities. She also was awarded the Michael P. Colbert Endowed Scholarship from the Department of Biology. Lee Ann gained additional clinical experience as a Geriatric Intern in Stony Brook Primary Care (August 2017-present); and by shadowing cardiologist Dr. Lloyd Lense in her junior year through her participation in the Premedical Access to the Clinical Experience (PACE) program. After graduating in May, Lee Ann will begin medical school at Stony Brook's Renaissance School of Medicine.

As an undergraduate at SB, Lee Ann has served as a Resident Assistant; a Teaching Assistant (for Biology, and Sociology classes); and is a writer for the Stony Brook Young Investigators’ Review (where she has contributed feature interviews of Dr. Matthew Lerner and Dr. Anne Moyer).  She is also active in the Autism Awareness Club; and the Phi Delta Epsilon International Medical Fraternity where she has served as a Management Committee Chair and a Judicial Board member. Reflecting back on her experiences thus far, Lee Ann is very thankful for all of her mentors, particularly Erin Kang and Dr. Lerner for teaching her about “what research is;” and Inel Lewis of the PACE program who “ works so hard to make your wish come true. My wish was to shadow a cardiologist and she made it happen! ” As a first generation college student, she also particularly appreciates the guidance she has received from Jessica Klare of the Honors College; and from Jeremy Marchese of the University Scholars program, her advisor in her freshman year:  “ I’m a first gen student. I didn’t know what college was. I didn’t know the things I needed to do for med school. So having them was really great because they’re really amazing advisors. I got lucky – if it wasn’t for them I don’t know if I’d be here.”

Lee Ann Santore is a graduate of St. Anthony’s High School and is a resident of North Babylon. She’s served as an Ocean Rescue Lifeguard for the Town of Babylon Parks and Recreation for over 5 years. She has also remained involved as a Swimming, Diving, and Adaptive Aquatics Instructor at Dix Hills, throughout her college years. Below are excerpts from her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.


The Interview:

Karen. Tell me about your current research.
Lee Ann. Dr. Lerner has a bunch of studies that I help out with. My independent study that I’m spending a lot of time on right now looks at how much primary care providers know about autism spectrum disorder and how confident they feel they are in treating it. Kids with autism spectrum disorder are able to get diagnosed by age 2, but they’re getting diagnosed much later in reality. So our goal is to figure out why that’s happening.

Does this work also have a clinical component?
This study doesn’t really involve direct interaction with kids on the spectrum. However, I am also involved with many of the other studies going on in our lab right now. So I do spend a lot of my day actually working with kids on the spectrum. Probably the bulk of my time is working with kids who come into the lab—doing IQ tests, administering EEGs, sometimes just interacting with kids who are waiting for tests to be done.

Tell me more about your independent project. How did the idea for the project develop?
For this particular study, it started off as an idea at a conference that I went to. After the conference, a bunch of professors & students went out to dinner. I had some conversations with another professor from Kansas City about the topic that made an impression. And when I got back home to New York, I thought about it some more and I decided I wanted it to be my senior thesis. It was something I felt passionate about. I really believe that early diagnosis can make a huge difference for people on the spectrum. So from there, I talked with a bunch of other primary care providers –psychologists, anybody in the field who wanted to contribute. There were a lot of people who were excited about this. And we’ve spent the last couple of months just developing the survey that we want to distribute to primary care providers. …We just got our IRB approval 2 days ago. So now we’re finally ready to begin collecting our data.

How did your interest in autism research start?
It was kind of by luck. In high school I was a swimmer and I needed a job. So I became a swim coach and became involved in giving special lessons for people with disabilities—what is called “adaptive swimming.” I really liked working with those kids.  I felt like, they had a lot to learn from me and I had a lot to learn from them. I built a lot of good relationships. ... So when I later came to Stony Brook and heard there was a research lab dedicated to Autism Spectrum Disorder research, I wanted to join it. So I sent Dr. Lerner an email and that’s how it started. I’ve been there almost 3 years now. I eventually had the unique opportunity to become the undergrad research coordinator for the lab. There are between 40-50 undergrads in the lab during the year. So it’s a big job. But it’s a lot of fun. And I’ve learned a lot! Right now, because I’ll be graduating soon, I’m trying to teach everyone everything that I know before I leave.

What does the coordinator position role entail?
I spend a lot of time teaching other people how to run those visits. We have a system called getting “checked out” or certified how to do something. You can’t just administer an IQ test when you join our lab; you have to get checked out. We do the same with EEGs, all the things that happen in the lab. So I’m the person that does most of the training, the checkouts. A lot of my time is spent working either directly with the kids, or teaching the other undergraduates how to work directly with kids in the future.

How has research complemented your education?
So much! I got to spend time working directly with the kids. I got a lot of really valuable experience: administrative, clinical, and even in running analyses—learning things that they don’t teach in your classes. It even helped me with the psych/sociology section of the MCATs. I’ve learned way more than I could have anticipated from being in that lab.

I can't emphasize how much I've learned from Dr. Lerner and our PhD students too. Dr. Lerner is a really great mentor. He is really good at making us really work to find out what we’re trying to learn. When we’re submitting abstracts for conferences, for example, even though he’ll know exactly what he wants us to write, he’ll never tell us that. He’ll have us look at the literature, or ask us questions that help us figure things out …He teaches us how to find the answers to our own questions… He also makes opportunities heavily available to everyone. If you’re an undergrad and want to write a paper and be published, you have that opportunity. You just have to do it. It’s really great that he lets the opportunities be open to everyone, regardless if you’re a PhD student or an undergrad.

You’ve presented posters or talks at several conferences. Tell me about what motivated you to present.
So in our lab, you get exposure to that culture where you see the PhD students and the master’s students going to conferences and presenting their posters. A lot of times they’ll practice in front of the undergrads. So as I‘ve watched students present to me, I thought: “ I want to do that”… and then, “ how could I do that?”... One of the PhD students, Erin Kang, kind of took me under her wing and taught me how to write a poster, how to do analyses …things that helped me develop as a researcher. It was really great because I had a couple of ideas based on my clinical observations working with kids. And she worked with me to run analyses, and turn these ideas into a poster. My first summer at Stony Brook, she worked with me a lot on a project of hers. We also worked together recently on co-first-authoring a paper. That took a lot more time than I expected. But I have learned so much about the research process from her.

I understand you’ll be presenting at the ABCT/ Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies meeting for a second time .
Yes, I’m building upon what I wrote a paper about and what I presented last year at ABCT. I’m presenting on the differences between ASD and typically developing youth and how they perceive their social skills to be important. It’s a really interesting finding because what we found was that both youth who were on the spectrum and typically developing youth view their social skills to be just as important as each other. That will be helpful for future interventions to know that they don’t have to teach that social skills are important. Instead, they can focus on just developing the social skills.  It gives some insight that kids with ASD are motivated to succeed socially, that is something they do want.

How did you find the experience of presenting at URECA last year?
That was really fun! I liked that a lot of the other students that were presenting were people I was friends with – but I hadn’t even known they were involved with research or what kind of research they did. It was fun to see the broad range of topics– people presenting psychology, biology, engineering research--all those diverse fields in one place. 

You also presented last year at an international conference, didn’t you?
Yes, last May, during finals week, there was a conference in the Netherlands called INSAR- the International Society for Autism Research. That was a really great conference – it was very specific in that there are only autism researchers there, so kind of opposite from my URECA experience. But I got to present my work, got to see the work from other researchers from a bunch of different countries, and I got to meet people who I never would have had the chance to meet otherwise and bounce ideas back and forth. I also went there on a URECA grant – so URECA has really helped me out. ..plus the summer fellowship this past summer.                                                                                   

Was it helpful to have a summer fellowship?
It was huge. This summer I was able to do my research full-time. Having that grant made it possible for me to commit that 40 hours/week without having to work additional part time jobs just to pay for school. It made a big difference in that I didn’t have to worry about losing money for being in lab. I was actually able to commit that time and not have this worry… it made a really big difference.

What is the time commitment for research during the academic year?
I spend ~20 hours in lab per week – as a paid, part time employee.

That’s a big commitment. You must have time management down!
My work in the lab has taught me how to maximize my time and how to set boundaries. There are some weeks where you might be tempted to work more than you should…and you have to know when to say no. That was something I didn’t know how to do at first. Being in this lab taught me exactly how much I could give before I say no, what my time limitations are.

W hat do you most enjoy about doing research?
I like that we’re on the front line in my lab. We’re the people who are figuring new ways to help people with autism. And I think that researchers in general are the people who lay the groundwork to figure out what works, and then clinicians and physicians can employ what researchers find into helping people. In research, being able to be the ones who are really there from the beginning, figuring out what works, what doesn’t work and knowing empirically that something does work is really exciting.

What are your future goals?
I’ve always wanted to be a physician. And I’ve recently heard that I was accepted to SB School of Medicine-- so I’ll still be at Stony Brook, just right across the street!

Do you hope to continue with autism research?
I’m not sure yet what field I’ll specialize in. But as a physician, I know I’ll have patients with autism spectrum disorder and it will always be an important research interest of mine.

What advice would you give to other students considering getting involved in research?
Don’t be scared to dive in head first. Send that email to your professor. One of the hardest parts of getting started is: Should I send this email? How do I start? If you know a professor that you’re interested in, just email them, try to contact them, and schedule a meeting. Remember, they’re people. They’re not scary. They want undergrads to work with them. That’s one of the best parts of SB. There are so many opportunities for research here that ... you really just have to ask.

How set were you on your goal to become a physician when you started college?
I was certain that I wanted to come to Stony Brook and that I wanted to become a physician. Stony Brook was always the best option for me. I’m a first generation college student. So when I thought about what I wanted to do, I knew that first I wanted to be close to my parents. I wanted to help take care of them and my grandparents. And to be near my family. And Stony Brook was just great – there are so many opportunities here. I didn’t know why I would go anywhere else. It’s affordable…It was the perfect storm of everything I wanted…… I genuinely love this place!

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