Life after college for Shaw means helping people every day as research assistant

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Emily Shaw
A 2015 graduate of the University of Iowa, Emily Shaw is settling in to her role both as a research assistant and within the HD community. (photo by Owen Wade) 

By Emily Szymanski

This autumn, for the first time in over 22 years, Emily Shaw sits down at her desk not as a student, but as an employed adult. She no longer has to search the University of Iowa’s crowded library for a quiet place to study. Now every day when she comes to work, she can come to her own office, complete with pictures of family and friends. 

A UI graduate this spring, Shaw recently began working at the UI Huntington’s Disease Society of America Center of Excellence as a research assistant, specifically as a coordinator for a forthcoming clinical trial. After spending a short summer at home in the Chicago suburb of Lisle, Ill., Shaw has come back to her alma mater to officially break in her bachelor’s degree in psychology by putting to practical use the knowledge she gained in all that time in the classroom.

“I’ve spent most of my life in school, learning how to be a good student,” Shaw said. “Now that I have graduated and have found a job, I look forward to learning how to be an adult and how to be a good research assistant.” 

Shaw was led to this position by her desire to help people, which has always been a part of her. While her various experiences in high school like volunteer club really helped develop this part of her personality, it was the example set by her best friend Macks that inspired her to get more involved. Macks volunteered for Little Friends, an organization serving children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

“Watching him always reminded me of how one person can really make a difference in someone’s life,” Shaw said.

As an undergraduate, Shaw was a research assistant for the Mechanisms of Audio-visual Categorization Lab, a UI research lab which focuses on how people learn language and perceive speech. At that time, Shaw primarily worked with students in the Elementary Psychology class, and she is now looking forward to gaining more experience working with different populations and people, like those in the HD community.

Toward the end of her time in college, Shaw got a taste of working in the business world, as a marketing intern for the Chicago-based telecommunications company First Communications. However, when looking for a job as a recent graduate, Shaw was happy to find this position where her work would positively affect a larger group of individuals. As a research assistant, Shaw welcomes the opportunity to step away from the desk and interact more directly with people and connect with those participating in research on a one-to-one level. 

Shaw had no knowledge of Huntington disease before applying to the UI HDSA COE, and she saw this as an opportunity to help a community unknown to her. After reading the job description, she spent a lot of time looking into the disease and trying to gain a sense of what her work would entail. In the end, she was motivated to help those with HD. 

After starting at the UI HDSA COE in late August, Shaw’s experience working here has already provided her a strong foundation for understanding HD and getting a sense of her role within the HD community.

“It’s such an impactful disease, both for the patients and their families,” Shaw said. “But I’m looking forward to learning more about HD and to help find a cure.” 

Shaw’s primary role as a research assistant is to coordinate a study that will examine the effects of a drug on motor function in HD. As she completes training for her new job, Shaw is eager to get more hands-on experience working with research participants. While she benefited from the diverse and unique aspects of her previous jobs, Shaw really enjoys this new aspect of working closely with people to facilitate their participation in research, which she finds rewarding. She has met a handful of participants so far, and was struck by how these encounters went. 

“They were really friendly and interested in helping,” Shaw said. “They genuinely wanted to take part in the research studies whether or not they had been diagnosed, and it was inspiring.”

Although she is working toward the long term goal of advancing HD research and contributing to finding a cure for the disease, Shaw has set her own standards for how she will measure her individual efforts.

“At the end of each day, I just want to make sure that I have helped someone, whether it’s a participant in the study or one of the people behind the scenes,” Shaw said. 

While Shaw may occasionally miss certain aspects of college (namely scheduling Fridays off and having an “optional” 9 a.m. class), she prefers being in the working world where she can use the knowledge she has gained in school to make more of a difference overall.

“I’m excited to work with every one of the participants who come to the University of Iowa,” Shaw said, “and hopefully we can all get one step closer to our end goal of finding a cure for HD.”