Leah (Acker ’07) Thomas meets me near the Harvard Square “T”
stop in Cambridge, Mass. She moves efﬁciently through the crowd, texting her
husband to let him know where he can join us.
We settle in for a bite just off the Square and Thomas begins her introduction,
or perhaps lesson, on her research.
Thomas is a Ph.D. candidate in medical engineering and
medical physics through the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and
Technology. Her work incorporates aspects of electrical and mechanical
engineering (hardware design and fabrication), physics (optics), neuroscience
and cognitive sciences, biology (anatomy, physiology, genetics, pharmacology),
computer science (modeling, algorithms for data analysis, etc.), math (statistics),
and, occasionally, some chemistry.
“I think when I counted last, I ﬁgured out the work I’m
doing spans over 12 disciplines,” she
said. “I’m interested in what makes a mind a mind.” Or, put another way, Thomas
is interested in developing treatments for brain disorders.
Her research agenda focuses on what is known as working
memory. A vital function of our brains, it provides temporary storage for and
the ability to manipulate information necessary for such complex cognitive
tasks as language comprehension, learning and reasoning.
Thomas’ interest stems from the need for new tools to study
and treat the brain. The joint Harvard-MIT program offers Thomas the latitude
to work across disciplines. She is taking full advantage of the opportunity by
pioneering a new brain treatment using optitronics, a non-invasive procedure,
that when ﬁnished, will be able to treat neurological disorders with light
instead of drugs.
“I like that working in medical engineering and medical
physics is hands on,” she explained, “but this is less about passion and more
about that this research can and needs to be done.”
Clearly, Thomas has a broad spectrum of interests. At Grove
City College she earned two degrees, a B.S. in electrical engineering and a
B.A. in political science, both summa cum laude. She served as editor-in-chief
of The Collegian and was president of the ham radio club. She and her husband,
Jared Thomas ’08, both worked in the Technological Learning Center as student
While enrollment at a joint HarvardMIT program is only an
option for a very select group of scientists, both Jared and Leah stress the
importance of summer internships undertaken during their years at Grove City
College as being instrumental in providing both direction and contacts that
helped both of them prepare to pursue graduate careers.
“Getting into graduate school takes luck and perseverance,
but a liberal arts education offers the best foundation,” explained Thomas. “It
teaches you to write better. It teaches a mental nimbleness.”
And perseverance, combined with some mental nimbleness and
undergraduate internships, have launched Thomas forward to the leading edge of