On Brooke Ellison's first day of seventh grade in 1990, she was struck by a car traveling about 55 mph as she crossed the street. The incident left her paralyzed from neck to toe and breathing with a respirator.
Ellison-now a first-year doctoral student at the State University of New York's Stony Brook University-was determined to not let her disability slow her down.
Over the past 15 years she has thrown herself into academics, writing and research. In fact, she received national recognition for co-authoring with her mother the book "Miracles Happen: One Mother, One Daughter, One Journey" (Hyperion, 2002), and she was the subject of actor and director Christopher Reeve's final movie before his death, "The Brooke Ellison Story," which aired on A&E in October.
But now, Ellison has turned her focus to pursuing a doctoral degree in political psychology-a field where she hopes to use her own experiences to encourage others who face challenges. She also wants to study how people come to collective decisions and how they motivate each other for the better.
"I think from the events of my life I've always been interested in how people come to terms with events in their lives," Ellison says. "That steered me in the direction of psychology."
Ellison graduated from Harvard University in 2000 with a degree in cognitive neuroscience, a dual concentration in psychology and biology. She wrote her 90-page undergraduate thesis on hope, defining it as "an affixed psychological construct for building resilience" and a crucial element for people to accomplish goals-which Ellison has found true in her own life. She also obtained a master's degree in public policy while at Harvard.
At Stony Brook University, Ellison has joined a research team that plans to use electroencephalogram (EEG) monitoring to gather physiological evidence on participants' responses to political candidates' campaign advertisements. In one such study, participants will read an advertisement and then identify whether words-such as "sunshine" or "cancer"-flashed across a screen are positive or negative. Meanwhile, the researchers will also inject subliminal words about the candidate to determine whether they help speed up or slow down participants' evaluation of the other words.
"Brooke brings theoretical insights that will be useful to help understand how people make political judgments," says Milton Lodge, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Stony Brook University, who along with professors Charles Taber, PhD, and Nancy Squires, PhD, leads the research team. He notes that Ellison's background in neuroscience from Harvard will be especially helpful in the project and gathering EEG data.
MAKING AN IMPACT
After she graduates, Ellison says she may conduct research or teach psychology. "My life can take me on really crazy turns, so I don't really know for sure where my life will take me," Ellison says, adding that she hasn't ruled out running for public office. "I want to try to make as big of an impact in different areas that I can."
One way she's already done that is through her movie. Following its release this fall, Ellison fielded calls from the press and still receives about 100 e-mails a day-which she tries to respond to-from people inspired by her story.
Ellison also gives motivational speeches throughout the country to K-12 schools, universities, physicians, religious groups and politicians. In those speeches, she tells audiences to determine their own goals and abilities and not let others decide such things for them.
"That's definitely how I've lived my life," she says. "I don't let anyone else say what I can and cannot do."