Senior wants to make a difference in pediatrics

Meredith Milligan presents her project on behavioral neuroscience.
Buy Photo Tim Cook / The Day Meredith Milligan presents her project on behavioral neuroscience.

North Stonington - While many of her peers were enjoying their summer vacation, Meredith Milligan spent the break between her junior and senior year doing something more unusual: dissecting sheep and rat brains.

"You either think it's awesome or you're ready to throw up," Milligan said.

The popular television show "Lie to Me" first piqued her interest in behavioral neuroscience, the study of the relationship between the brain and human or animal behavior. The show focuses on a talented scientist who solves crimes by studying facial micro-expressions.

As the youngest student in her senior class, the easy-going 17-year-old spent the past eight months preparing for her senior project presentation researching both behavioral neuroscience and the details of animal research.

Working more than 50 hours in a lab at Connecticut College, Milligan shadowed two upperclassmen performing experiments on rats to find the neural basis of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Ruth Grahn, the director of behavioral neuroscience at Connecticut College, said Milligan was the first high school student she had ever had in her lab.

"My experience with her was unique," said Grahn, who served as Milligan's mentor. "What captures people's attention about her is her quiet way about things. She has a lot of capability but doesn't broadcast it to everyone."

Milligan was supposed to observe the process, but "she was quickly handling the rats, watching their behavior, organizing research and collecting data," Grahn said.

During her time in the lab, she sliced rat brains in half to determine their development. But even though blood and guts do not bother her, one thing does make her shudder: parasites.

"Parasites bother me, they creep me out," she said. "Something about tapeworms. ... I can deal with blood. But tapeworms? Nope. They're totally gross."

Milligan's talents also go beyond the sciences.

Since third grade, she has been playing the flute. She's been a member of the Thames Valley Youth Symphony for two years and most recently won the Outstanding Arts Award from the Connecticut Association of Schools for her work in instrumental music.

"When everything is so focused on science and math you need the arts," Milligan said.

She says music is her sport and she is "definitely not athletic."

"I don't know what to do with a ball," she said. "If you throw one at me, I'll duck. I try to stay away from them."

She'll attend the University of Connecticut in the fall as a biology major and is contemplating double majoring in psychology.

Interested in the pediatric field, Milligan has been obsessed with the way the human body functions.

"For me, I need to have a career where I feel like I'm making a difference," she said. "Pediatrics is the perfect balance of human sciences and helping people at the same time."

Associate Principal Christopher Sandford said Milligan's senior project was the "ideal" project and that it was "advanced beyond her years."

"I can see her in five to 10 years being on our wall of distinguished alumni," Sandford said.

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