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StoriesRose Piscuskas ’21

Exploring the connections between albinism and mental health

At Lesley, Rose Piscuskas found a path to pursue her interest in medicine and emotional wellbeing

Rose Piscuskas '21 on a hike
Rose Piscuskas '21 on a favorite hike at Haystack Mountain in her native Maine.

Rose Piscuskas has the steady, calming presence of someone who’s good at handling a crisis. It’s not surprising to learn that she works as an emergency medical technician (EMT).

What’s more noteworthy is that she earned her Lesley bachelor’s degree as a double-major in Health Science and Psychology while working full-time in the high-stress environment of a hospital emergency room. Now she’s planning to put her work experience and her Lesley studies to work in a career in medicine.

Applying real life experience to her studies

Rose brought a handful of college credits and a wealth of life experience to Lesley. Her educational journey was an unusual one.

Unhappy in high school, she had dropped out, feeling that it was a waste of time. She started teaching music, continued studying on her own terms (“I sort of homeschooled myself”), and eventually earned her high school degree. She studied education briefly at Evergreen State College in Washington, then returned to her home state of Maine, got her EMT certificate, and started working in a hospital emergency room.

She came to Lesley determined to earn her bachelor’s degree in health science or biology so that she could go on to medical school, pursuing an individually designed major and enrolling through Lesley’s Center for the Adult Learner.

A supportive cohort of professors

Rose credits Lesley faculty with supporting her as she navigated the challenges of balancing work and her studies and encouraging her to weave the two together.

“One of the things that I really appreciated about my education at Lesley is that all of my professors were willing to have me research things that were relevant to my work life,” she says. “I’m somebody who really needs to see the applications of things that I'm learning, otherwise, it's hard to keep track of it all.”

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Grace Ferris was impressed by Rose’s calm confidence and the kindness and generosity towards others that made her a strong leader and valuable groupmate in class.

“She’s one of those students who seems to just ‘get it,’” she says. “When she would come to office hours or ask questions during class, it was clear that she was keenly aware of the sticking points and what she needed to understand better to make the material click.”

Exploring albinism and mental health

Rose was increasingly interested in the connections between physical health and emotional wellbeing. Working in emergency medicine gave her a close vantage point to observe patients who were often experiencing both physical and mental crises.

“I am constantly finding myself noticing that people who have stressful things going on in their lives have a much more difficult time getting better or have a more severe manifestation of their symptoms,” she says.

Rose Piscuskas '21 in hospital scrubs and PPE
Rose Piscuskas at work in the Emergency Department of the Cambridge Health Alliance.

She credits her exposure to those patterns for helping her start thinking creatively about albinism and mental health. Albinism is a condition that causes a lack of pigmentation in skin, hair, and eyes and is associated with vision issues and higher susceptibility to sunburn and skin cancers. As a person with albinism, Rose had long been curious about the connections between albinism and mental health.

She had considered different ideas for her research capstone project, but Lesley Director of Transfer Student Success Jennine Tambio encouraged her to explore the more personal topic of the emotional impacts of albinism.

Through her own life experience, she suspected that she wasn’t alone in feeling that her condition had impacted her emotional wellbeing, but she was surprised at how little research has been done on the topic.

“There’s lots of research about skin cancer and people with albinism, for example, which is good,” she explains. “My question was more—if people with albinism know that they have a 40 percent higher chance of developing skin cancer throughout their lifetime, how does that affect their mental health? That’s when I started exploring to see if I could do some original research.”

Rose connected with a broad number of people to talk with through the many albinism-related groups she belonged to on Facebook and through the National Organization for Albinism and Hyperpigmentation (NOAH). She conducted her research online, asking participants specific questions about their social and academic experiences and their emotional wellbeing. She found that albinism had an indirect but unmistakable impact.

“I think that any human condition that that causes social isolation or othering is going to impact mental health in some way,” she says

Many respondents had experienced feelings of social isolation, connected directly or indirectly to their condition. Sun sensitivity often impacted their ability to participate fully in sports or social events. Several respondents talked about the social challenges they faced at school because they had to choose between sitting with their friends or sitting where they could see the board.

“That was something I could relate to completely. And I would almost always choose to sit with my friends instead of where I could see.”

Her research was published by NOAH and she hopes that it will lead to further exploration.

“Looking back on my research, it was incredibly powerful,” she says. “I wish that I had had more time, and hope that maybe I will come back to it.”

A plan for the future

Rose is enrolled in prerequisite science courses and plans to apply to medical school. While she considers her studies in psychology valuable in terms of communicating with and understanding people, she doesn’t plan to be a psychologist. She’s drawn to the pace and the challenge of emergency medicine, and is also considering pediatrics or obstetrics and gynecology.

“There’s such a need for good women’s health in our country,” she says. “I see all the time that there’s a really big disparity in the type of healthcare that women have access to, especially people in marginalized populations. And there’s such a good ratio of happy things to sad things when you’re delivering babies.”

Learn more about how Lesley education can fit into your busy life. 

Wondering whether you can fit your educational goals into your busy schedule? Find out more about the ways that you can earn your Lesley degree full-time or part-time in fields like in Health Science and Psychology

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