SRU recreation therapy major nabs prestigious NIH internship


National Institutes of Health

Jessica Laughlin, an SRU recreational therapy major, is spending her summer vacation as an intern with the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

July 8, 2016

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - It's only natural for the thoughts of most graduating seniors to be focused on what the future holds once they cross the commencement stage and have their degree firmly in hand.

Will they be able to land the job they want? What kind of starting salary can they expect? Where will they live?

But Jessica Laughlin isn't your typical graduating senior. The Slippery Rock University recreational therapy major from Allentown is more concerned with the futures of others, rather than herself.

In fact, rather than spend her final summer break soaking in the sun, Laughlin finds herself in the midst of a 15-week internship with the globally renowned National Institutes of Health where she is hoping to "improve the prospects of every patient, every day".

The NIH is a biomedical research facility primarily located in Bethesda, Maryland. An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it is responsible for biomedical and health-related research. The NIH both conducts its own scientific research through its Intramural Research Program and provides major biomedical research funding to non-NIH research facilities through its Extramural Research Program.

The IRP is the largest biomedical research institution in the world, responsible for many scientific accomplishments, including the discovery of fluoride to prevent tooth decay, the use of lithium to manage bipolar disorder and the creation of vaccines against hepatitis and human papillomavirus.

jessica laughlin


Laughlin, who is working in the NIH's recreational therapy department, not only believes she received the opportunity of a lifetime via her selection to the program, but believes her personal goals mirror those of SRU's recreational therapy program - improve the quality of life, lessen or prevent disability and assess functional independences of individuals.

"Many of the people I see everyday have terminal illnesses or stage four cancer who are here because it's their last hope," said Laughlin. "My goal is to make sure they don't sit around watching the clock and counting the seconds. I don't want them to just exist. I want to help them live."

To help accomplish these goals, Laughlin and her adult oncology and hematology supervisor make their daily rounds utilizing a holistic approach by digging deeper than the surface issues of any given medical situation. The pair studies post-surgical depressions; family perceptions; social ramifications of illness and anxiety; negative side effects of medications; confusion; and any emotional or cognitive consequences that may be connected with the physical aspects of hospitalization.

They also investigate the healing usages of biofeedback, personal training, animal assisted therapies and Reiki, a healing technique based on the principle that the therapist can channel energy into the patient by means of touch, to activate the natural healing processes of the patient's body and restore physical and emotional well-being.

However, their primary focus is to decrease pain, promote positive attitudes and increase coping skills. In short, Laughlin and her NIH contemporaries look to inject as much meaning and independence as possible into their patients' lives, while correcting any subtleties that may be hindering recovery.

While such an extensive job description may have seemed daunting to other students, Laughlin's previous experiences clearly provided the proving ground needed to accept the challenge.

As a sophomore, Laughlin received a research grant that funded a trip to Guatemala where she studied the perceptions of people with disabilities in that country.

"I think that the trip, for me, showed what I had always know about myself," said Laughlin. "I had a passion for helping people and bringing the future to them. While I didn't know where that would take me at the time, I was prepared to take that first step."

Laughlin discovered that for many rural families in particular, physical and intellectual handicaps were viewed as punishments and even curses in Guatemalan society. Consequently, a lack of resources and knowledge surrounding physical and mental illness often led to inequality and inaccessibility for those affected individuals, especially among school children. Despite federal laws to the contrary, many people were still suffering from societal perceptions and archaic attitudes.

"I was startled that such a problem could still exist today," said Laughlin. "That type of situation has made me want to fight for patients' futures and freedoms all the more."

To that end, Laughlin was elated to be selected for the NIH internship.

"The field of recreational therapy is so diverse and still so young, that the possibilities are endless for practitioners and patients," she said.

"At the NIH, I'm working with doctors and primary investigators of research protocols that have coined terms like 'childhood onset schizophrenia.' These are things we learn about in our textbooks and I get to be a real-life part of what I'm studying in the classroom. It's humbling and exciting all at the same time."

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