October 18, 2018
Erin Ulrich
Image of Anna Stearn
Anna Stearn ’18 Photo credit: Courtesy of Anna Stearn ’18

A psychology major at Oberlin, Anna Stearn ’18 is shaping the connections she made during undergrad into the beginning of her career as a research psychologist.

As a research assistant at the Johns Hopkins University’s Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit (BPRU), what once was a nebulous web of fascinations with the behavioral psychology research world has become a stepping stone in Anna Stearn’s career. Stearn ’18 is working in Dr. Annie Umbricht’s lab, studying the effects of stress on otherwise healthy cigarette smokers’ bodies. As part of Umbricht’s pilot study, Stearn is at the forefront of research substantiating the hypothesis that, although nicotine produces calming effects in the short term, cigarette smoking increases physiological stress in the body over time.

A psychology major, Stearn has long been interested in the intersections of psychological and physical health. As a sophomore, she stumbled upon Hallucinogens, edited by Dr. Charles Grob ’72, a pioneer in the resurgence of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy research, while studying for an Introduction to Neuroscience exam. Without realizing Grob was a fellow Obie, Stearn had happened upon what would become a catalyst of her future career path between the pages of a book.

Shortly after discovering Grob’s book and with the help of Associate Professor of Psychology Al Porterfield and the Oberlin psychology and neuroscience departments, Stearn brought Grob back to campus to present his research using psilocybin to treat existential anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients. Her discovery also inspired her to reach out to Porterfield and create an individualized private reading with him, titled Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy.

Stearn’s proclivity toward behavioral research runs deeper than her connections with the BPRU, which she established as a first-year at Oberlin when she connected with Dr. Roland Griffiths, principal investigator of the psilocybin study at the BPRU. As a student, Stearn worked with dementia patients at Kendal at Oberlin and interned at the National University of Natural Medicine the summer going into her senior year.

Stearn is well-positioned for the job she’s in; Umbricht’s interest in mindfulness, paired with the subject matter of her lab complements the existing research-related opportunities Stearn has had. She says the BPRU community is full of “compassionate people who have a drive for exploration and learning” who will help her form the bedrock of her career.

Her success wouldn’t have been possible without the confidence and dexterity with which she stepped out of her comfort zone as a student and has since applied the connections she made at Oberlin to the real world.  Stearn is confident that her passion for studying psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy will soon land her a spot in the psilocybin lab at the BPRU.

She says, “Be creative and put yourself out there and reach out to people who inspire you! Study what you love, and Oberlin will support you, if you ask for help.”

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