#ElonGrad 2021 spotlight: Emma McCabe, exercise science

In this series, Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences is shining the spotlight on distinguished members of the Class of 2021 from a wide array of disciplines.

When she wasn’t on the field with the Phoenix softball team or softball club, Emma McCabe ’21 stayed busy with research.

An exercise science major with minors in neuroscience and biology, she participated in research around concussive injuries in sports with Elon BrainCARE, nutrition and mental health. She was recognized as the department’s 2021 Outstanding Major in Exercise Science this spring. She happened upon Professor of Exercise Science Caroline Ketcham’s directory page while looking for faculty involved in research about the brain and human behavior. Ketcham and Professor Eric Hall run Elon BrainCARE Research Institute, dedicated to mental wellness, concussion management and education, and identity development through sport.

“I love exercise science because it is so interdisciplinary,” McCabe said. “I can study biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry, biochemistry, neuroscience, psychology, biomechanics and more, all as they apply to the human body, and through the lens of exercise and physical activity.”

McCabe is a member of Kappa Omicron Nu honors society for human services, was a Colonial Athletic Association Scholar Athlete in 2019, and was a captain and president of club softball in her junior and senior years. She was the recipient of the Trey Hawker Memorial Scholarship for Exercise Science in 2020 and the Glen Raven Research Award in 2019.

Tell us about your multiple research projects.

My research experiences have shaped my broad interests in cognition, mental health and implications for improving quality of life, and I am forever grateful for the opportunities and personal growth I have been awarded at Elon for my research engagement.

Generally, I have been involved in research all four years through Elon BrainCARE, where I led testing protocols for concussion testing in club, varsity and dance athletes at Elon. I have worked on three undergraduate research projects while at Elon, two of which were performed through the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience in 2019 and 2020, and one of which comes from my senior seminar course that I took in the Fall 2020.

I led two original research projects under my faculty mentors, Professors Ketcham and Hall, on the relationship between nutrition and mental health through SURE. My first inspiration for research was my fascination with the gut-brain axis, a communication system between the gut microbiome and central nervous system that can greatly impact one’s behavior, mental health and overall physical health.

My first project evaluated the effect of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)-omega-3 consumption on cognitive function and anxiety/depression symptoms of student-athletes. We found that those consuming a high-fat diet (e.g. desserts) had significantly higher anxiety/depression symptom scores. I presented a research poster for this project at the NABIS Conference on Brain Injury in February of 2020 to fellow researchers in the area of brain injury.

For my SURE 2020 project, I built on my 2019 project to improve knowledge on the relationship between nutrition and mental health for better outcomes for athletes and the general student body. I interviewed 17 athletic personnel from six NCAA Division I universities on their resources, education and perspectives on the relationship between nutrition and mental health in their athletic programs. We learned that while there is a lot of work that is being done, there is still so much to improve, and factors like resources, education, department integration and coach and student involvement in departmental programs, in addition to stigma, still play a huge role in athlete care and the athletic experience. I am currently preparing a first-authored manuscript for this project in order to inform other collegiate-level providers on the work that is being done in nutrition and mental health arenas. In addition to SURF Day, I presented a poster for this project at both the Southeastern ACSM Conference and NCUR Conference in Spring 2021.

In the Fall of 2020 I began a co-founded research project around actual and perceived barriers to help-seeking behavior among athletes. With the help of Assistant Professor of Exercise Science Aaron Piepmeier, a fellow ESS major and myself were able to survey and describe Elon University student-athletes’ perceptions of their own and others’ stigma toward mental health help-seeking behavior (HSB). Hopefully this study can be repeated in the future, and results could be used to inform interventions to improve mental health literacy and reduce stigma. We presented a research poster for this project at SURF Day 2021, and are currently preparing a co-authored manuscript for this project that we hope to get published soon!

What is your proudest accomplishment while at Elon?

I am proudest of my research. It has shaped who I am and really helped me grow into a more confident, assured, curious and considerate person.

How did getting to know and working with your mentors shape you?

Drs. Ketcham and Hall have been my co-mentors all four years at Elon. Both have given me so many opportunities and made my Elon experience a great one. They helped me realize that my interest in so many different topics wasn’t indecisiveness, it was a strength that I could use to make my research and academic studies more interdisciplinary — which is also more reflective of life itself. They let me explore my interests and supported me every step of the way. They taught me how to design, implement, write and present scientific research, and pushed me to do so at every opportunity. They also offered guidance in other areas of my life that benefitted my personal growth.

It is largely because of their guidance that I have become a much stronger, more confident scientist and woman, and I will always be grateful to them. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without them.

What are your future plans?

Starting in June, I will be working with the National Institutes of Health Post-baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award program at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in the Laboratory on Human Psychopharmacology. For one to two years there I will help conduct research on genetic, environmental and experiential/behavioral risk-factors for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) to look at the effects on the brain and find potential therapies to help people recover from AUD. After research, I aim to apply for a Ph.D graduate program in neuroscience, exercise science or the like, and maybe become a research professor. Being a researcher and educator would combine two of my biggest passions, so I think academia might be the ultimate path for me.

What advice would you give future Elon students?

If you want something and the worst thing they can do is tell you “no,” go for it! Just reaching out to people, applying for things and trying to get opportunities, even if I wasn’t sure I could really do it yet, was how I opened so many doors for myself. That’s how I walked onto the Elon Varsity Softball Team, how I got into research, how I got into the NIH — things that have changed my life forever. Never underestimate yourself here (you got in, so you bELONg here). People at Elon want to help you and if you take that first step they will do their best to get you there.

And try not to make your schedule so full that you can’t enjoy life. Try to keep a balance between study and play, always.

What’s your favorite Elon tradition?

I love the lighting of the trees and lanterns that is done every winter. It just makes me so happy to see the whole campus lit up in beautiful colors.