Marine with a heart for mental health studies the brain

One in a series of stories about DePaul University's Class of 2018

Alysa Bloodsworth
After serving in the Marines, Alysa Bloodsworth studied neuroscience at DePaul University to learn more about the causes of post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
CHICAGO — The brain’s primary function is to send messages and make connections between different parts of the body. For Alysa Bloodsworth, studying the brain has enabled her to connect her experiences as a Marine and mental health advocate with her aspiration to be a doctor.

At only 25 years old, Bloodsworth is a veteran fluent in Arabic who has worked in military intelligence, led a company of 200 Marines and counseled youth runaways in Chicago. This June, Bloodsworth will graduate from DePaul with a dual bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and Arabic studies and plans to apply to medical school.

Her adventures began as a teen, when Bloodsworth’s mother noted that her curiosity and intelligence would make her “a great spy.”

She liked the idea of adventure and travel, so Bloodsworth joined the Marines right out of high school. She received cryptologic linguist training and also learned Arabic to work on intelligence missions. Not long after enlisting, she was recognized by her commanders for her leadership and problem-solving skills, which earned Bloodsworth a leadership position two ranks above her own as company gunnery sergeant.

“So many new doors and experiences were suddenly open to me,” Bloodsworth said. “One significant experience was witnessing how deployment affected some of my friends’ mental health. It led me to wonder how those pathways in the brain work.”

A mental health advocate, starting with her military peers
In the Marines, Bloodsworth served as a suicide prevention advocate, and acted as a confidant for those struggling with mental health issues or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It started out as mandatory, but I developed a strong love of volunteering and giving back,” Bloodsworth said. “It felt good, and there are so many people who need help or someone to talk to.”

After a deployment to Spain to support a mission in North Africa, Bloodsworth was asked to fill out a routine military mental health assessment. She found that the questions on the test seemed to prompt certain answers, and she believed some of her fellow Marines were answering the way they believed they should, rather than how they actually felt. For Bloodsworth, who wanted to know why this was happening, the next logical step was to study the brain.

Her sisters in Chicago recommended she check out DePaul University for its strong academic reputation and location in the city. Bloodsworth fell in love with the school’s sense of community, Vincentian values, and the university’s support of veterans.

Bloodsworth began studying psychology, but learned that DePaul would be launching a neuroscience major. She was excited to be among the first students to enroll in the program.

“I like the interdisciplinary aspect of neuroscience, and how it brings everything together. There are molecules that cause certain things to happen and a cascade of cellular pathways, and there’s a behavior at the end of it,” Bloodsworth said. “Depending on the pathway it takes and the environment, different behaviors will present. I think that’s pretty fascinating.”

Bloodsworth became the neuroscience program’s student liaison, working closely with professors and program co-directors Dorothy Kozlowski and Sandra Virtue.

“Alysa helped us as we launched the program and provided us with the students’ perspective on how it was going, which was instrumental since we were a new program in need of real-time feedback,” Kozlowski said. “She took on many challenging tasks with high levels of motivation and dedication.”

Bloodsworth served as president to start up DePaul’s chapter of the National Neuroscience Honor Society, Nu Rho Psi, and worked on a research study in the psychology lab on the different brain hemispheres’ responses to word problems.

“Dr. Kozlowski and Dr. Virtue went above and beyond as my mentors. During my time at DePaul, I was able to help launch the neuroscience program, seminars, and organizations, and other events,” Bloodsworth said. “Working for and with faculty and students in the neuroscience program has been an experience I’ll never forget.”

Turning to service to help runaway youth
As busy as she was with her university studies, Bloodsworth wanted to put her skills as a suicide prevention advocate to use outside of the military. She discovered the National Runaway Safeline, a national communication system for at-risk, runaway, or homeless youth, which is based in Chicago. She now volunteers there as a “liner,” taking hotline calls from the youth and parents who phone in for help.

“I remember my first caller was a 12-year-old girl. She was talking about all of these horrible things going on in her life and some of her ideas for how to solve these problems weren’t great,” Bloodsworth said. By the end of that conversation, Bloodsworth felt that she’d helped, but admitted that it is sometimes hard to hang up the phone and never know how things turned out.

“We always tell them that they’re courageous for calling in for help and thank them for reaching out to us, and remind them that we’re here to support and listen just so they feel confident in their choice to reach out,” Bloodsworth said. “It feels good to be helping these people out, but there are still so many other people who are struggling.”

After graduation, Bloodsworth plans to take a gap year to work alongside a hematologist-oncologist as a medical scribe. She will also spend the summer applying to medical school and training to become an EMT. Once she completes medical school, Bloodsworth is torn between becoming a neurosurgeon or a psychiatrist. She figures that she has a few years of study before she has to decide on a specialization, but caring for others is always at the center of her reasoning.

“If I do psychiatry, I want to work with people with PTSD, because that would tie back to my time in the military,” she said. “I’d be able to help people who served, and connect with them on a better level because I used to be there, too.”

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Media Contact:
Kristin Claes Mathews
312-362-7735
kristin.mathews@depaul.edu