Cynthia Sullivan, PhD, first showed her mettle as a multiple sclerosis (MS) researcher while pursuing her master's degree in clinical psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. As a neuropsychology technician for a Baltimore rehabilitation hospital, she worked with a small unit of MS patients and began studying the degenerative disease.
That's when she says she found holes in the literature. Some patients, for example, complained about cognitive impairment, but she didn't find much research on MS and cognitive functioning to back their claims. So Sullivan decided to fill the void.
Seven years later, after she earned her PhD in 2000, her study of factors contributing to MS patients' psychosocial adjustment to their condition helped her land a postdoctoral fellowship in neuropsychology at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
Sullivan was a predoctoral psychology intern at the VA when she learned that her supervisor was putting together a longitudinal study of MS-related cognitive deficits. Knowing that the next postdoctoral fellow in neuropsychology would work on the project, Sullivan focused on winning the job. She suggested adding measures of psychosocial functioning to her supervisor's project to see if performance of cognitive tasks would predict MS adjustment.
In fact, she saw her supervisor's longitudinal study as an opportunity to expand her research. "I knew [the research team] would be doing neuropsychological testing, so I suggested adding some measures of psychosocial functioning to find out if self-reported cognitive functioning would hold up as a predictor when measured objectively," says Sullivan, who completed the two-year fellowship last August.
Sullivan's supervisor, Jeffrey A. Wilken, PhD, liked her suggestion and made it a component of the longitudinal study. "Dr. Sullivan's ideas regarding the link between psychosocial and objectively measured cognitive functioning led to a major change in the protocol for our research project," says Wilken, director of neuropsychology at the VA Medical Center in Washington, DC"Thanks to her thoughts, a number of measures of psychosocial functioning were added to the project. The addition of these measures was highly praised by the VA Institutional Review Board."
Sullivan's hypothesis about cognitive functioning not only held up, but the results of that component of the larger study were also presented as a poster at the annual conference of the Consortium of MS Centers in 2001, where it won an award for best research.
A WELL-ROUNDED 'FELLOW'
During her postdoctoral fellowship, Sullivan wore many hats. She coordinated all aspects of the longitudinal study on MS cognitive deficits and submitted abstracts for presentation at neurological and neuropsychological conferences. She also conducted neuropsychological evaluations, developed treatment plans and consulted with multidisciplinary teams at the medical center. And she co-supervised predoctoral graduate students doing neuropsychological evaluations.
"The whole postdoc was just a joy," she says. "There was so much diversity."
More professional joy came Sullivan's way in May 2001. A third of the way through her VA fellowship, Sullivan was offered her dream job as a staff neuropsychologist, in which she helps manage the Washington, DC, VA's hospital-wide neuropsychology clinic. She is also the psychologist for the Chronic Pain Management Clinic, and she supervises neuropsychology interns and externs and conducts neuropsychology research.
But of all the opportunities that Sullivan's postdoc and current job have brought her, what she relishes most is giving talks to MS patients about her work. "They're always so happy to hear about [research findings]," she says.
Though adjusting to these new responsibilities has been challenging, Sullivan also managed to get her license, travel frequently to do presentations and keep up with her postdoc work-all while fulfilling her roles as a wife and a mother to two children, who are 5 and 8 years old.
"The biggest challenge in trying to do so much with a limited amount of time is the guilt, especially when you're a parent," says Sullivan, though she notes that her husband's support is invaluable. "It's a challenge logistically. I'm tired most of the time, but there's nothing I would give up…I love the teaching, I love the talks, I love the research and the clinical work here."