Announcing Our 2021 Halmo Geography Scholar: Elizabeth Theirl!

Elizabeth Theirl at Granite House
Elizabeth Theirl at Granite House

In her first year at UW, Elizabeth (Lizzy) Theirl took an initial interest in neuroscience through coursework and lab-work at Seattle Children’s Research Institute studying the pathogenesis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. As that first summer break - and its opportunities to gain practical experience - drew near, Lizzy recalled an article from her hometown newspaper in Stillwater, MN, describing the construction of Granite House. A nonprofit group home for minimally-conscious young adults, Granite House moved Lizzy "by the selfless care of the staff members who share the common goal of enhancing the quality of life of the residents in every way possible, but also through the connections [she] made with the residents." Lizzy notes that unlike "traditional long-term care facilities, the aim of Granite House is to provide an alternative living environment that provides compassionate care and the feeling of being at home, while also providing a support network to help residents’ families heal."

During her 2019 internship with Granite House, Lizzy designed a "night under the stars" as a sensory therapy program and learned about the goals of Granite House founders Carol and Tom Insley for enhancing the lives of those living with traumatic brain injuries. It was at Granite House, too, that Lizzy was introduced to the possibilities of studying geography through her connection with one of the residents who majored "in geography during his undergrad and was an avid hiker prior to his injury - hence the name Granite House after Granite Peak." Now pursuing a double degree in neuroscience and geography, Lizzy plans to return to Granite House this summer for a second internship and has been awarded the first annual Gerald W. Halmo Geography Scholarship to support her project that benefits a community and furthers her development as a geographer. Professors Mark Ellis and Bo Zhao, faculty members on the Department of Geography Undergraduate Program Committee, describe Lizzy's proposal for the scholarship as "an exciting project about developing sensory outdoor spaces as therapy... It compellingly articulates connections between the creation of those spaces, her development as a geographer and her career plans in the medical field." With this award, Lizzy hopes to cover some of the tuition during the internship and will allow her to save her working income to help fund medical school applications the following summer. Here, Lizzy shares more about her academic preparation and plans for this summer's internship as well as how she intends to connect the experience to future career goals.

This Summer's Internship Proposal

"... [D]esign and construct a sensory garden for the residents. Through extensive research and planning, I will build wheelchair-accessible raised planters and grow a variety of plants, thoughtfully chosen to evoke sensory experiences for residents. From planting fuzzy-leaved lambs ears to growing eye-catching colorful vegetables, I hope to create a space where residents can indulge in additional sources of sensory therapy and connect with the outdoors in ways that weren’t previously possible. Furthermore, I plan to tap into my artistic side and design outdoor art features that add to the sensory experience, such as handmade wind-chimes and birdhouses to attract wildlife. Overall, I plan to make an outdoor space that is not only rich in sensory stimulation, but also a location for weekly music therapy and community picnics to take place, further bringing the community together...

My main mentor at Granite House is Carol Insley, one of the founders and the parent of one of the residents living with a traumatic brain injury. With regards to my sensory garden project, Carol has no plans set in stone. With the project in my own hands, I will draw up a blueprint for the design and then present it to the board of directors for approval and feedback. Throughout this project, I will be in close contact with Carol for mentorship through the design and implementation phases."

On Pursuing a Double Degree

"Often when I tell people I’m studying both neuroscience and geography, there is a moment of surprise: what do either of those fields have to do with the other? However, as the complexity of the human brain is increasingly becoming mapped, I find many interdisciplinary connections. On one hand, majoring in neuroscience has allowed me to understand the biological mechanisms behind traumatic brain injuries and the importance of neuroplasticity when healing from such an injury. On the other hand, majoring in geography has taught me to think across scales - injuries at a cellular level being aided with therapy at the community level - when approaching a new situation. Further, the geography major has allowed me to develop communication skills that have helped me meaningfully engage with communities that are different from my own, while continuously expanding my perspective."

Differences Between 2019 and 2021

"Unfortunately, I will not be able to connect with the residents one-on-one this summer given the current situation of the pandemic. However, I still hope to make a lasting impact nonetheless. I have almost two years of additional education in both the arts and sciences which will greatly aid in my development of the sensory garden. I know that I will still be able to connect with the residents indirectly and watch them immerse in the sensory experiences from afar which makes the hard work that I will be investing worthwhile. Upon completing the project, I know that I will leave with a similar feeling to my internship experience in 2019: satisfaction in knowing that I brought a sliver of the goodness of the world’s sensory experiences to the residents."

On Creativity and Community

"In my free time, I often use art as an outlet ... to slow down from my everyday schedule and give myself time to reflect. In addition to my involvement with Granite House, I’m also working as a personal care assistant for a young adult who is living with a neurodevelopmental disorder. Currently, I’m helping him kick-start his hobby of using paper collage to repurpose glassware into pieces of art into his own business. We’re hoping that once our inventory gets large enough that we can start selling some of his work in local bakeries and possibly have a gallery showing at the local community art center. Circling back to my present project, the creation of these spaces helps to bring the community together by providing a common ground for those with different backgrounds and perspectives to connect with one another. Residents, caretakers, and staff will be able to use these spaces to reflect on the hard work that has already been done at Granite House, and to discuss new projects and improvements for the future. My hope is these spaces I’m helping create will provide a place for everyone to join together in a world that - now more so than ever - feels divided and disconnected."

On Spatial Awareness and the Geography Skillset

"When diagnosing a patient, I don’t want to overlook any symptom that could potentially lead to a misdiagnosis. Through [the geography major] I have learned that it is important to think beyond just locally when it comes to analyzing a situation, and the same can be true when identifying a medical condition. While diagnosing, I plan to make considerations more holistically instead of focusing on one organ system or type of medical test. For example, this could mean looking at things like environmental factors or living situations that may influence a patient’s condition. Further, the education that I am fortunate enough to be receiving through the UW Department of Geography will allow me to reflect on ethical considerations that are crucial in the field of medicine. I know my degree in geography will allow me to think critically about the social impacts of my work, both in deciding where to practice medicine and how to effectively provide quality care to underserved communities."

On the Impact of Geography Coursework and Professional Goals

"My first geography course at UW, GEOG 272 Geographies of Environmental Justice taught by Professor Ybarra, was a deciding factor in my decision to pursue a degree in geography. Not only did I leave her course with a new perspective on social injustice, but I left with a call to action to demand change in the inequalities that have gone unresolved for far too long. More specifically, my professional goals revolve around medicine, and I know that through practicing in underserved communities I will be able to help those who have been disproportionately carrying environmental burdens. Furthermore, by being a voice in producing solutions to healthcare access, I can help dissolve barriers in the hopes of providing effective healthcare to those most in need."