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Leah (Acker '07) Thomas

Leah (Acker '07) Thomas


Leah (Acker ’07) Thomas meets me near the Harvard Square “T” stop in Cambridge, Mass. She moves efficiently through the crowd, texting her husband to let him know where he can join us.  We settle in for a bite just off the Square and Thomas begins her introduction, or perhaps lesson, on her research.

Thomas is a Ph.D. candidate in medical engineering and medical physics through the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Her work incorporates aspects of electrical and mechanical engineering (hardware design and fabrication), physics (optics), neuroscience and cognitive sciences, biology (anatomy, physiology, genetics, pharmacology), computer science (modeling, algorithms for data analysis, etc.), math (statistics), and, occasionally, some chemistry.

“I think when I counted last, I figured out the work I’m doing spans over 12  disciplines,” she said. “I’m interested in what makes a mind a mind.” Or, put another way, Thomas is interested in developing treatments for brain disorders.

Her research agenda focuses on what is known as working memory. A vital function of our brains, it provides temporary storage for and the ability to manipulate information necessary for such complex cognitive tasks as language comprehension, learning and reasoning.

Thomas’ interest stems from the need for new tools to study and treat the brain. The joint Harvard-MIT program offers Thomas the latitude to work across disciplines. She is taking full advantage of the opportunity by pioneering a new brain treatment using optitronics, a non-invasive procedure, that when finished, will be able to treat neurological disorders with light instead of drugs.

“I like that working in medical engineering and medical physics is hands on,” she explained, “but this is less about passion and more about that this research can and needs to be done.”

Clearly, Thomas has a broad spectrum of interests. At Grove City College she earned two degrees, a B.S. in electrical engineering and a B.A. in political science, both summa cum laude. She served as editor-in-chief of The Collegian and was president of the ham radio club. She and her husband, Jared Thomas ’08, both worked in the Technological Learning Center as student support staff.

While enrollment at a joint HarvardMIT program is only an option for a very select group of scientists, both Jared and Leah stress the importance of summer internships undertaken during their years at Grove City College as being instrumental in providing both direction and contacts that helped both of them prepare to pursue graduate careers. 

“Getting into graduate school takes luck and perseverance, but a liberal arts education offers the best foundation,” explained Thomas. “It teaches you to write better. It teaches a mental nimbleness.”

And perseverance, combined with some mental nimbleness and undergraduate internships, have launched Thomas forward to the leading edge of medical research.