2022 Dissertation Award, Lana Ruvolo Grasser, PhD

Lana Ruvolo Grasser, PhD (she/her/hers)
Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC Lab; starclab.org)
Jovanovic Lab—Detroit Trauma Project (DTP; detroittraumaproject.com)
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences
Wayne State University School of Medicine
Detroit, USA

Lana Ruvolo Grasser (she/her/hers) recently obtained her PhD in Translational Neuroscience from Wayne State University. Under the mentorship of Drs. Arash Javanbakht and Tanja Jovanovic. Her NIMH-funded dissertation project, “Biomarkers of Risk and Resilience to Trauma in Syrian Refugee Youth”, identified skin conductance response to trauma interview and fear potentiated startle as candidate biomarkers of trauma-related psychopathology in youth exposed to civilian war trauma and forced migration. Dr. Ruvolo Grasser has extended this work to query efficacy and underlying mechanisms of creative arts and movement therapies to address trauma-related psychopathology in families resettled as refugees of Syria, Iraq, the Congo, and Afghanistan. She has led efforts to extend these programs to the virtual space for schoolchildren and to neighborhoods across Detroit for youth and caregivers. She is also passionate about science policy and advocacy, and is a member of the National Science Policy Network as well as the 2022-2023 ACNP AMP BRAD fellow. In the fall, Dr. Ruvolo Grasser will begin a postdoctoral fellowship under the mentorship of Dr. Melissa Brotman in the Neuroscience and Novel Therapeutics Unit within the Emotion and Development Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health. Outside of the lab, Lana is a triathlete, yogi, dance, and enjoys scuba diving with her dad. 

Dr. Grasser defended her dissertation in the Translational Neuroscience Program at Wayne State University in March, 2022, graduating as one of the top PhD students in our program. Lana accepted a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Melissa Brotman at NIMH in Fall, 2022. During her NIMH F31 NRSA fellowship, she examined psychophysiological measures of trauma-related sequelae in refugee children. Through her dissertation studies, Lana has laid the foundational work needed to pursue a career in the study of neurobiology of traumatic stress on child development, where she aims to combine novel behavioral, physiological, and molecular methods to increase understanding of the impact of trauma on both brain and body. Her work has been centered on a highly vulnerable yet understudied pediatric population, namely, children of refugees resettled in the United States. Her exceptional academic and research skills have resulted in several awards, including the F31 (awarded upon first submission), and acceptance into the highly competitive Alies Muskin Career Development Leadership Program, awarded by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Notably, Dr. Grasser was one of the youngest awardees of the Muskin Award. Dr. Grasser published 16 peer-reviewed papers, including eight first author publications, which is an outstanding accomplishment for a graduate student.

Dr. Grasser has proven herself to be an outstanding researcher in her undergraduate and graduate work. She has been self-directed and independent in planning and carrying out her projects and has demonstrated leadership in designing and organizing the analyses. At the same time, she is very collaborative and works extremely well with others at all levels. Considering both her independence and collaborative nature, she was able to seamlessly work with two laboratories to study trauma neurobiology from both adult and developmental approaches. As a graduate student, Dr. Grasser received numerous awards, including travel awards for the Society of Biological Psychiatry (SOBP), International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies, ADAA, and HealthEmotions Symposium at the University of Wisconsin. She was also accepted to attend the highly competitive “Training in fMRI Course” at the University of Michigan. In addition, Dr. Lana has given talks and chaired symposia at international meetings, and has presented many posters as well as mentored undergraduate students in their poster presentations. She has eight first author papers published in high impact journals, including two in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and a review paper in Behavioural Brain Research. In addition, she has multiple other manuscripts published or under review. These papers show her high level of productivity and potential for an independent career in neuroscience research.

Dr. Grasser’s progress throughout her years in the graduate program is a clear demonstration of her motivation and perseverance, having designed a behavioral health intervention study, applied for and being awarded a Student Award grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield, and completed the first  phase of the intervention study- all before officially starting in our graduate program at the end of August 2017. By the end of her first semester, Dr. Grasser had presented her research at two conferences and won two awards for research dissemination, as well as contributed to two successful grants from Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Detroit Medical Center. Thus far, she has successfully designed, acquired funding for, implemented, and presented results from her research with refugee children, and has established partnerships with local resettlement agencies and school districts.

Notably, Dr, Grasser has been successful in incorporating biomarkers in her clinical research interests. For example, her recent paper reported association between symptoms of depression and anxiety and inflammatory cytokines in a Syrian refugee population. As part of her F31 NRSA project, Lana tested fear-potentiated startle in children from refugee families. This work is truly innovative as so little neurobiological research has been conducted in these traumatized cohorts. Her work is unique in that she aims to understand neurobiological mechanisms in this largely understudied population. She has been so successful in recruiting refugee families in the first year of her F31 that her grant and dissertation timeline was not affected by a 18-month shut down in recruitment due to COVID-19. In fact, she continued to collect data remotely and maintain contact with study participants throughout this challenging time. She also developed novel interventions that could be delivered virtually; the description of these interventions was recently published (Grasser & Javanbakht, 2021, JAACAP). 

While making substantial progress on her dissertation research, Dr. Grasser has also contributed to data analysis in large consortium studies. Specifically, she has been analyzing electromyogram startle data from a large multisite study, AURORA, which prospectively examines biomarkers of risk for mental illness. For this study she has analyzed data on more than 500 participants and presented a poster at SOBP, reporting that prior substance abuse moderated the association between startle response and future symptoms. She has also increased her understanding of psychophysiology by collecting and analyzing skin conductance data in refugee children, which was just accepted for publication (Grasser et al., in press, European Journal of Psychotraumatology). Finally, Dr. Grasser has made a substantial contribution to the literature of brain development with a thorough review of safety learning in children and adolescents (Grasser & Jovanovic, 2021, BBR).