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Academics & Research

Student-Faculty Pair Lead Change in the Field of Autism and Co-occurring Conditions

Psychology major Meredith Robertson, BA ’25, and her advisor, Joe McCleery, PhD, are conducting an independent study that will lead to a much-needed change in the field of treating autism and its co-occurring disorders.

Doctor speaking to patient in consultation

Written by: Emmalee Eckstein

Spring 2024

Total reading time: 3 minutes

Meredith Robertson, BA ’25, is a psychology major with her own dual diagnosis — she’s not only living life on the spectrum, but she also has an anxiety disorder. 

And Robertson is not alone — individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often meet criteria for at least one additional psychiatric disorder, like anxiety, ADHD or OCD. But it wasn’t until the last decade or so that providers began recognizing these issues outside of each individual’s ASD diagnosis, and with that came a myriad of revelations around treatment.

This is where Robertson found inspiration for a years-long independent study that would delve into how providers can successfully treat co-occurring disorders in people with autism.

“The profile for how you treat and support people with anxiety looks very different for autistic and non-autistic individuals,” explains Robertson. “The typical route, which is prescribing SSRIs, isn’t known to have the same effect for the majority of neurodivergent people.”

Side effects like irritability, hyperfocus, behavioral activation, trouble with sleep and gastrointestinal distress seemed to be taking hold of the people with ASD who were prescribed SSRI medications like Zoloft, Prozac or Lexapro to manage their depression or anxiety. 

“What we’re interested in is treating the whole person. Right now, we’re just treating symptoms." - Meredith Robertson, BA ’25, psychology major

“There’s a different brain process going on there,” says Joseph McCleery, PhD, who is overseeing Robertson’s independent study on the subject. McCleery is an assistant professor of psychology at Saint Joseph’s and the executive director of academic programs at the University’s Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support. “Meredith and I are hoping to shake up the field with this study — we want to create a big-picture summary of issues and solutions for providers studying and treating co-occurring disorders for autism.”

Once Robertson has compiled data from her extensive literature review, she and McCleery will be working directly with clients at the Kinney Center, as well as providers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Jefferson Health, to study a wide variety of patient records. In this way, they’ll examine the real-life challenges of reaching a stable point of function for patients with co-occurring disorders and autism. 

“What we’re interested in is treating the whole person,” says Robertson. “Right now, we’re just treating symptoms and not the overarching issues that autistic people are dealing with when they have co-occurring disorders. We want the treatment field to take a person’s entire life into consideration and pay attention to improving the quality of it.”

“There are so many layers that need to be peeled back here to tell each individual’s story,” agrees McCleery. “This study is showing providers that they’ve been ignoring the elephant in the room. There is nothing in the data that tells us SSRIs are even reducing anxiety and depression in this population. So what are we going to do instead?”

Robertson and McCleery are currently drafting a manuscript reviewing the literature on this topic, which they plan to publish in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. They will then conduct studies over the next five years, gathering data and reviewing patient cases. From there, they’ll publish work to lead the field in implementing changes to treatment practices.

Academics & Research

Global Smarts Celebrates 10 Years

A program that connects Saint Joseph’s student mentors with Philadelphia middle schoolers competing in Model United Nations has grown over the past decade to include nearly 200 sixth through eighth graders.

Photo of flags from around the world

Written by: Alex Hargrave ’20

Spring 2024

Total reading time: 3 minutes

When the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia kicked off its Jr. Model United Nations Conference more than a decade ago, it was clear to the program manager at the time that participants from under-resourced schools needed more support.

Dana Devon, the Council’s head of programming at the time and a former adjunct at Saint Joseph’s, approached Political Science Professor Susan Liebell, PhD, with the idea to pair Hawks with middle school students to help them prepare for the Model UN conference.

Having little experience with Model UN outside of her own children’s participation, Liebell says she decided to first send three students to work with eighth graders around the city. 

“I knew the kind of opportunities it brings in terms of research skills, oral presentation skills, collaboration and the practice of pretending you’re a person making policy, and it intrigued me,” Liebell says. 

Very quickly, the eighth graders that Saint Joseph’s students mentored through the process started to win awards and compete with public and private schools that had more resources.

“This model of equality of resources as opposed to equality of opportunity and access was a core social justice piece,” Liebell says. “It was a joy to be part of a program that really moved that theory to eighth graders in the Philadelphia area.”

From three undergraduates, the program has grown to include dozens of University students and young Model UN participants in sixth through eighth grades. This school year, Global Smarts will serve 190 students from 10 schools in the Greater Philadelphia area. 

“I’m trying to show them that they themselves are peace builders in the same way the United Nations is a peace builder.” - Lisa Baglione, PhD, professor of political science

Mentors meet weekly with middle school students to prepare for the annual Model UN Conference in May. Groups work on critical thinking skills, public speaking, drafting policy resolutions and researching all aspects of a country, from its economy and government to its culture and history. 

Kasey Trapp, BA ’17, was a mentor in 2015 and later worked for the World Affairs Council’s education department for a few years. As an international relations major, the mentorship was her first time working with kids and she says it sparked her interest in a career in education.

“There’s a straight line you could draw from my time at Global Smarts to the World Affairs Council,” she says. “I loved working with the kids. It helped me realize I could combine my interests — I could continue to pursue a career on the international relations side of things and find my way in how I can work in education without being a traditional teacher.”

Lisa Baglione, PhD, professor of political science, was chair of the political science department when Liebell brought the program to Saint Joseph’s. Three years ago, she took over the program and now serves as its faculty adviser. She says she has tried to instill in her students through teaching about the United Nations that peace is more than an absence of war.

“It’s building the capacity of human beings,” Baglione says. “I’m trying to show them that they themselves are peace builders in the same way the United Nations is a peace builder.”

Mackency Moreno, BA ’26, is currently a Global Smarts mentor working with the Hope Partnership for Education in North Philadelphia. She says she got involved as an international relations major and a service scholar for the service aspect of the program, but has so far learned new skills in addition to coaching middle school students.

“We had to learn parliamentary procedure, public speaking and how to teach different concepts,” Moreno says. “The schools we work with, even though they might be underfunded, the kids want to learn.”

Global Smarts is a service-learning and internship opportunity in the political science department, though Baglione says she hopes to cultivate mentors from all disciplines.

“There’s always a market for more mentors,” she says.

Academics & Research

Pro Bono Clinic Supports Community and Students

The University’s Samson Free Rehab has a new home, but its 20-year mission remains resolute: provide care for the community’s vulnerable populations while training the healthcare leaders of tomorrow.

Saint Joseph's University students in classroom setting with a person in a wheelchair

Written by: Dianne Holliday

Spring 2024

Total reading time: 3 minutes

After nearly two decades of serving patients at Mercy Philadelphia Hospital, Saint Joseph’s pro bono physical therapy and occupational therapy clinic, Samson Free Rehab, relocated to University City ahead of the academic year.

The clinic serves individuals with physical ailments who would otherwise be without care: the uninsured, underinsured, or those who have exhausted their insurance coverage and still need support services. 

“The pro bono clinic is fantastic because it tends to serve underrepresented minorities and people who don’t have great access to healthcare,” says Margie Roos, PT, DPT, PhD, professor and chair of physical therapy. “In physical therapy, we have faculty specialists for almost everything you can think of — pediatrics, neurology, orthopedics, geriatrics — and we can treat all of those patients within our practice.”

The clinic also sees patients for a variety of occupational therapy needs, from helping individuals adapt at home or work after an injury to managing life with a chronic medical condition. It’s a harmonious blend of services that help patients live life to the fullest.

“If you have a back injury, you may see physical therapy for mobilizations, range of motion and decrease in pain, whereas you come to occupational therapy to look at workplace ergonomics, safe lifting strategies and how to manage within your day at different pain levels to complete the tasks you need and want to do,” says Wendy Walsh, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, clinical associate professor and chair of occupational therapy.

Samson Free Rehab not only serves the community, but it’s also a training facility for students in Saint Joseph’s School of Health Professions. The clinic employs a mentorship model in which OT and PT students learn from faculty as well as their peers.

“Students get to practice treatment and teaching, which is such a big part of what we do when we teach patients how to do exercises." - Margie Roos, PT, DPT, PhD, professor and chair of physical therapy

For example, a third-year professional student in the PT program might direct a student in their first or second year to take a patient’s blood pressure reading since they’ve been honing that skill in their Cardiac Rehab course. Likewise, another student who’s been learning manual therapy techniques in the classroom might be encouraged to take over with that part of the visit.

“Students get to practice treatment and teaching, which is such a big part of what we do when we teach patients how to do exercises,” explains Roos. “After the evaluation, they talk to the faculty member and present the patient case: ‘Patient is complaining of neck pain, this is what we’re seeing, this is what we think we should do for treatment,’ and then the faculty member guides them, explains what they did well and what they could maybe do better.”

This year, the clinic has also partnered with the University’s Health Promoters Program (run out of the Institute of Clinical Bioethics) to screen vulnerable populations of patients within the area and refer them back to Samson Free Rehab for follow-up care. 

“One of the core Jesuit values of St. Joe’s is service. The occupational therapy and physical therapy professions are also heavily service oriented, so we weave this into the curricula supporting the professions’ ethos,” says Walsh. “It’s such an important value and resonates so strongly with faculty that we feel honored to provide our surrounding community with these services free of charge."

Academics & Research

What’s the Deal with Multiverse Madness?

Saint Joseph’s University Physics Professor Paul Halpern, PhD, attempts to answer that question and more in his new book, “The Allure of the Multiverse: Extra Dimensions, Other Worlds, and Parallel Universes.”

Photo of multiverse planets

Written by: A.J. Litchfield

Spring 2024

Total reading time: 3 minutes

Multiverse book coverMultiverse this, multiverse that — movies, books and TV shows seem to be obsessed with exploring the possibilities that come with alternative realities, and mainstream society is gobbling them up. It is a rare feat for such an abstract and complicated concept of theoretical physics and quantum mechanics to so easily capture the attention of the public. So just what is it about multiverses that fascinates us? And, more importantly, what even is a multiverse in the first place? Paul Halpern, PhD, author of the recently published book titled “The Allure of the Multiverse: Extra Dimensions, Other Worlds, and Parallel Universes,” provides some answers. 


Q: Let’s start with an easy one: What is the multiverse? 

A: One of the first widely known ways of describing the multiverse came about back in the 1950s from a young student named Hugh Everett. The traditional idea of quantum physics is that it's like a black box that has all these possible outcomes. Someone opens the box and it collapses down into one of the possible answers. Everett came up with an alternative idea, which is that now all those possibilities exist, but somehow, our sense of reality splits up at that point. And different versions of us see the different possible answers. That later became known as the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum physics. 

Q: In the book, this debate comes up on whether or not theories like the MWI should be studied at all. Where do you come down on that debate?

A: Some hard-headed physicists say something like, "Well, if it's not directly falsifiable, then we shouldn't consider it." But my answer is that there are a lot of things that are unknown, but we infer that it's true because of other things that we do detect.

Q: What’s the utility then? Why study multiversal theories?

A: Some multiverse ideas are used to try to come up with a consistent objective theory describing all of nature. It’s always been hard to predict the implications of theories, though. For example, Einstein came up with the photoelectric effect, meaning that if you shine light on metal, it releases electrons and creates a current. Nowadays that's used for any kind of digital camera like a phone camera ... and it just goes all the way back to Einstein.

Q: Why do you think we, as humans, care so much about the answers to these big questions of the universe?

A: Humans have a natural curiosity. There are these barriers in life that make it impossible for us to know what alternative paths and alternative directions we might have taken. It's this desire of wanting to see past this giant barrier of our observable universe.

Q: What about you personally? Why do you study the multiverse? 

A: This book was kind of a realization of both my interests professionally and as a child in science fiction. I had the opportunity to see Isaac Asimov, the sci-fi writer, speak when I was a child and was really enmeshed in that scene. Then as a graduate student at Stony Brook University, we studied different models of the universe. That showed me how the Big Bang model is only one of a range of possibilities and kind of opened up my mind to the idea of exploring other possible universes.

Q: Are you a true believer then? Are we living in a multiverse? 

A: I'm kind of agnostic about that. I don’t think that there is direct proof that the multiverse exists currently, but we should be open minded to it.