For Clarendon Scholar, It’s All About Brains

Aug. 24, 2011

Emily Lea Connally, who graduated in May 2011 with her master’s degree in psychology from the University of Arizona, is comfortably at home in the high-tech realm of the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) lab in the basement of the University of Arizona Medical Center.

Talking about the behemoth machine, she says, “I use it to do resting state MRI scans. I use statistics to find the brain networks that fire together when you’re not asking anyone to do anything.” With the apparatus thumping away in the background, Emily comfortably chats about her rich past and her wide-open future.

The lab is a far cry from the family ranch in rural Española, New Mexico where, as a budding scientist, she grew up collecting bugs and checking the heartbeats and temperatures of the family hunting dogs.

Today, Emily’s interest in living things has focused in on the brain, and her fascination seems endless. It shows through in her enthusiasm for and dedication to her field. It shows all the way down to the tattoo of a skull – brains and all – delicately etched on her left ear.

She came to the UA after graduating cum laude from Harvard with a degree in psychology. When she leaves here, she will attend Oxford University as a Clarendon scholar where, in the spring of 2014, she will graduate with her Ph.D.

Outside of her academic pursuits, she lives life to the fullest; she sings, enjoys basketball and tennis, and lends her voice to advocating on behalf of her fellow graduate students.

Early on, she was a bit of an anomaly. Out of her small ranching community, only one other student left the state after high school. With her love of science and lots of encouragement from both her mom and dad to set her sights high, she ending up at Harvard.

Very much drawn to research, Emily received a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation to study neuropsychology during her first year at UA. Her focus has been on normal, healthy aging and her clinical work has included work on Alzheimer’s disease. While here, she spent a summer at Oxford where she investigated the connections between motor development, language impairment and white matter in the brain.

Emily credits her time at the UA and the master’s she has earned for getting her where she is now. Her ultimate goal is to bring big city research to rural communities like the one where she grew up, and see that research informs the treatment of people living there. Her plans include opening a rural clinic to help those with memory rehabilitation and mood disorders, and she particularly wants to do studies on rural populations and the impact of culture on how such disorders are presented and addressed.

“I want to help combat the trend of just assigning drugs to disorders,” she says.

Harkening back to her father and the attitude he instilled in her, she says, “You never know until you try and see how far it will take you.”

Learn more about the field at the University of Arizona Department of Psychology.

Emily has been an active voice on the Graduate and Professional Student Council. Check it out.