Bassim Birkland mixes theory and practice
BASSIM BIRKLAND KNOWS he received a great classroom education as a psychology major. But he's just as grateful for the time he spent beyond campus.
Birkland, who received his B.A. in 2006, completed field work with an autistic child and did research at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center. Coupled with his academic work, those experiences laid the foundation for a career in public health and medicine.
First came the lesson of persistence. Birkland, who is from Arden Hills, Minnesota, took his first psychology class at the University when he was a high school student. "I didn't do very well in it," he laughs. "I really made up for it in the past couple years."
Indeed he did. Birkland went on to earn scholarships and academic honors, including a Mortensen Scholarship and a Selmer Birkelo Scholarship.
"It turned out to be a great decision," he says of his major. "I learned so much about how humans behave and think."
Birkland says his major armed him with both the data and the investigative skills of science and the critical thinking skills of liberal arts. "We're taught to analyze and think critically," he says. "The department engraved that in our minds. It has much broader applications in everyday life, in whatever field students end up in."
Another powerful combination -- theory and practice -- notably came together when he took Behavioral Analysis and Autism from Gail Peterson, who became a mentor and friend. Birkland visited the home of an autistic child three times a week and used behavioral therapies he learned in the classroom.
When the department's undergraduate adviser steered him toward a job as a research assistant with the schizophrenia and psychotic disorders research team at the Minneapolis VA Medical Center, Birkland learned how to collect brain wave data and analyze patient charts. He also worked on a study examining the relationship between supersensitivity psychosis and tardive dyskinesia, a movement disorder.
This research gave rise to his undergraduate thesis project, which examined the side effects of antipsychotic drugs among these patients. "They have pretty high expectations in the department for a senior thesis," says Birkland. "It has to be in the form of an American Psychological Association manuscript like you'd submit to a journal to be published. That's something that a lot of people don't learn until they're well into graduate school and working on their dissertation."
Last fall, Birkland entered the University's School of Public Health. He hopes eventually to attend medical school and pursue a career that involves both clinical work and research -- the very combination that made his undergraduate education so memorable.
"Both skills developed in psychology," he says. "My coursework, research, and clinical work complemented each other."