University of Southern California USC

Featured Postdocs: Darby Saxbe

Inside USC’s state-of-the-art neuroimaging center, Postdoctoral Fellow Darby Saxbe introduces me to the Siemens MR system scanner she uses in her research.  At least, what Darby shows me is a perfect replica of the actual neuroscanner. The mock scanner looks exactly like the real scanner, and even makes realistic, spaceship-like noises in imitation of the real thing.

The brain scans Darby analyzes as part of her postdoctoral appointment necessitate that study participants lay inside the narrow tube of the scanner as it uses high-powered magnets to produce images of their brains.  The sole purpose of the mock scanner is to introduce study participants to this strange and slightly intimidating machine slowly, so that they are at ease and completely relaxed when they enter the real scanner.

Darby works with participants of a 10-year study designed by her mentor, Dornsife College Professor Gayla Margolin.  The study, which looks at family communication, conflict and the influence of those factors on young people’s well-being, fits well with Darby’s research interests.

“I wanted to learn neuroimaging because I thought it would be a great compliment to the work I’d already done on stress hormones and emotions,” Darby tells me as we take the elevator up to her office on the University Park campus.

Darby Saxbe came to USC as a postdoctoral scholar after earning her PhD in Clinical Psychology from UCLA, where the focus of her doctoral research was the stress hormone cortisol and the effect of family relationships on physiology.

Darby was brought to USC, as she puts it, “by a fortuitous connection of interests, resources and collaborations.”  The new neuroimaging facility, the enthusiasm for research that exists at USC, and the potential to collaborate with Professors Gayla Margolin and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, of the Rossier School of Education, made Darby’s decision to come to USC easy – so easy she didn’t even consider other schools.

So far Darby has scanned 12 people in her pilot group, and hopes to have 30 participants in all.  She’s investigating the ability teenagers have to read their parents’ emotions and thoughts, and how chronic family conflict affects that ability.  Darby shows her adolescent study participants videos of themselves interacting with their parents, sometimes in conflict situations, and then uses the scanner to see how those situations have affected their brains.  The teens are asked to rate how the video participants were feeling during the interaction – a question designed to see how effectively they can comprehend the subtleties of the interaction they were a part of.

Darby hopes that the skills she is learning during her postdoctoral appointment might allow for the future integration of her work with stress hormones, family relationships and neuroimaging.

“I’d like to continue using fMRI [neuroimaging] in future studies.  I’m interested in how stress levels correspond to brain activations.  What I’m doing now is good training in running a neuroimaging study – how to design a task, how to prepare a subject, how to run the scanner – it’s good to have basic skills in that methodology.”

Darby will enter the job market soon but her focus for now is the present – and she has plenty to focus on.  Besides her work in the lab, Darby is a supervisor at the psychological services clinic, helps graduate students with their manuscripts and is working with graduate students who are offering clinical services to corps members in City Year, a service organization dedicated to helping at-risk students graduate from high school.  She spends the rest of her time with her family – a husband and daughter at home and another child on the way.

Though Darby is up to her eyeballs in supervisory responsibilities, she doesn’t seem to mind the extra work.  Her role as a mentor and supervisor came about through her desire to help people – she saw a need in the department for mentors and volunteered to fill it.

“Doing therapy is hard work,” she explains. “You need a lot of support.”

Through her work in the Neuroimaging Center and her relationships with other students and researchers in her department Darby is learning to collaborate with different types of people, a skill she’s sure will serve her well when she moves on to a permanent position.

“Postdoc is a nice scaffolding from student to full-fledged researcher,” Darby tells me.  I have no doubt that she’s right.  With her eye for collaborative opportunities, passion for helping students and her colleagues, and the resources of the neuroimaging center at her disposal, Darby Saxbe is making the most of her time at USC.

Profile by Alison Beck