Bonanno Performs Life-Changing Research through Internship

Ellie ’20 presenting her research findings at a conference.

Ever since Gabrielle (Ellie) Bonanno ‘20 can remember, she has been interested in research. The possibility of advancing the world’s current knowledge deeply intrigues her. During her junior year of college, Ellie decided to pursue her childhood interest by participating in a summer research internship at RTI International in North Carolina.

Ellie, a current senior at Purdue, studies both brain and behavioral science and computer science. She first got involved with undergraduate research during her sophomore year on campus when she reached out to Dr. Bridgette Kelleher, an assistant professor of psychological sciences and co-director of the Purdue Autism Research Center, about working in her lab. Ellie has now worked for Dr. Kelleher’s Neurodevelopmental Family Lab for nearly two years.

“Ellie has been a phenomenal member of our research team,” says Dr. Kelleher. “She has a knack for highly technical tasks and a unique ability to identify simple, high-impact ways to improve and advance our projects. One of my favorite parts about working with Ellie is her curiosity. She has a genuine interest in learning and applying what she has learned to help others.”

It was while working in Dr. Kelleher’s lab that Ellie first recognized her interest in researching neurodevelopmental disabilities. Dr. Anne Wheeler and Dr. Casey Okoniewski from RIT’s Newborn Screening, Ethics, and Disability Studies (NED) team visited and gave a talk at Purdue. They discussed their work and research careers in intellectual and developmental disability studies. Ellie was able to speak with them during their campus visit and became extremely interested in their work.

“I knew I wanted to pursue a career in neurodevelopmental disability research, but I had no idea what research was like outside of an academic setting,” says Ellie. “Later that year, Dr. Kelleher suggested I reach out to Drs. Wheeler and Okoniewski who advised me to apply for a summer research internship within their department at RTI.”

While working for RTI, Ellie’s research focused on studying infants who were born from mothers infected with the Zika virus. If exposed to the virus in utero, infants can contract congenital Zika syndrome (CZS), which causes a unique pattern of congenital disabilities. Very little information is known about the long-term behavioral and developmental outcomes of affected infants.

“RTI and the Altino Ventura Foundation in Recife, Brazil, are working together to help the world learn more about CZS,” says Ellie. “It’s important to understand the lifelong implications for affected children and their families. This is crucial for improving quality of life and identifying appropriate family supports. One of my favorite parts about doing research for RTI was getting to contribute to the amazing work being done by the NED team.”

My advice to other students interested in pursuing a career in psychology would be to get involved in a research lab at Purdue as early as possible.

Ellie Bonanno

After completing her summer internship, Ellie has decided to pursue a doctorate degree in neuroscience after graduation. Her time at RTI solidified her interest in neurological psychology and presented her with knowledge that courses alone could not have. RTI allowed Ellie to perform life-changing work and learn from a multidisciplinary group of individuals who have selflessly dedicated their lives to research.

“Ellie’s experiences at RTI enabled her to scale her research experiences to a global platform,” says Dr. Kelleher. “Almost always, my students have found that they know themselves better and have greater clarity about next steps for their careers after giving undergraduate research a try. Of course, we also have a lot of fun along the way!”

“My advice to other students interested in pursuing a career in psychology would be to get involved in a research lab at Purdue as early as possible,” says Ellie. “The skills I obtained from my internship and working in the Neurodevelopmental Family Lab have provided me with real-life experience and knowledge that classes alone could not have. My relationship with Dr. Kelleher has been invaluable to my career and personal development. She is a truly inspiring role model.”

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