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Clinical Psychology PhD Student Fareshte Erani Awarded F31 Fellowship from National Institutes of Health

By Gina Myers

Doctoral Student Fareshte Erani

April 08, 2021

When third-year Clinical Psychology doctoral student Fareshte Erani decided to apply for a prestigious research grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she did so because it would be good practice. She felt getting the application together by the deadline was in itself a huge accomplishment.

“I was really happy I did it regardless of the outcome because it helps you prepare for other applications or grants you may be applying for in the future,” she explains. “When I was applying over the summer, I was working under the assumption that I would have to resubmit the application in December because it is so rare to get it on your first try, but it felt like such an accomplishment to just work through the process.”

Erani was elated when she received official notice that she had been awarded the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) Individual Predoctoral Fellowship to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research (Parent F31-Diversity). This award is designed, according to the NIH website, “to enhance the diversity of health-related research workforce by supporting the research training of predoctoral students from diverse backgrounds including those from groups that are underrepresented in the biomedical, behavioral, or clinical research workforce.”

The award is quite the honor, with only four researchers receiving it in the prior year. Erani will use the $134,028 award to support her research on cognitive mental fatigue in individuals with multiple sclerosis (MS). “Fatigue is a symptom that affects 95% of individuals with MS and in over half of them, it’s their most distressing symptom, but it’s also one of the least understood symptoms,” she says. “I am using models from cognitive neuroscience including a modified version of an effort-reward model to see if we can better understand fatigue.”

The implications of this research could be significant for MS patients. “The hope is that the research can provide a new understanding of the basis for cognitive fatigue, which could then lead to treatments that could relieve the burden of fatigue in patients,” says Erani.

John Medaglia, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and one of Erani’s mentors, explains the significance of this award, “Predoctoral NIH NRSA grants are highly competitive awards that must pass an expert review and score well against peers' applications. These awards are an investment in the promising next generation of young researchers who conduct clinically relevant work.

“With grant paylines at historically low levels, obtaining a federal grant on the first try at any level is very noteworthy. It's even more impressive because this is the first grant of this kind that Fareshte has applied to. She had to take significant initiative to learn how to give her ideas the best chance to be funded,” he says. “In the end, her grit and wit paid off, and now she has some excellent support to develop her own line of research in cognitive fatigue.”

Though Erani studied psychology as an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), it was not clear that she would pursue a PhD until her work experience after graduation, first with clinical trial patients and then with researchers at UCI.

“I was inspired by the patients I worked with and saw how important research is for them. It pushes the boundaries of what we know and understand,” she says. “I was also inspired by working with Dr. Steve Cramer, who is a neurologist I worked for at UC Irvine. I could see his passion for research to better the lives of the stroke survivors he worked with. I knew I wanted to be in a setting where I could work both directly with and for individuals who have neurological diseases and disorders—working as a practitioner and doing research. Clinical psychology offered the best of both these two worlds.”

Now, with the support of the F31 award, Erani can begin her own research, which she is excited to get underway. Medaglia is also excited about Erani’s project and her future impact on the field.

“The reason I invited Fareshte to join our PhD program was because of her natural curiosity and ability to ask good questions,” he says. “It is no secret that admission to these programs is increasingly challenging, as is obtaining research funding. As a neuropsychologist by training, I was driven to the field by an insatiable curiosity about the human condition from a neuroscience perspective. Fareshte makes my job more fun because she is well-humored, works hard, focuses on her goals, and takes rare initiative. She is also highly perceptive and intuitive, which serves her well in in roles in the laboratory and her own research.

“In an increasingly connected and technological work, Fareshte is the rare student who can help bridge gaps between disparate fields while clearly communicating her ideas,” adds Medaglia. “Should her interests remain in cognitive fatigue or otherwise, I have no doubt that she will make an impact on the field over a long and successful career.”