Skip to main content

Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion Research Fellows

Administered by the Center for Research on Empathy and Compassion, the Sanford Research Fellows Program provides financial support for up to two years to fellows under the guidance of a faculty mentor for basic or applied empathy and compassion-related research projects. It is an annual application process that is open to all full-time UC San Diego medical students, graduate students, or postdoctoral scholars. Applicants are required to identify a UC San Diego faculty mentor to develop the research project collaboratively. The program welcomes as mentors all members of the UC San Diego faculty, including adjunct members whose primary affiliation is through the Salk Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, or the Sanford/Burnham/Prebys Institute.

Meet our Fellows

2022 Fellows


Alessandro D'Amico

Research Project: Investigating Racially-Modulated Neuromarkers of Pain Empathy with Electrophysiology

Project Description: Racial biases manifest in various forms from a disproportionately Black prison population in the U.S., to Black patients’ pain being consistently underestimated and symptoms inadequately treated. While education and training may be effective at reducing biases, ameliorating biases by increasing empathy and compassion is another worthy goal. In order to accurately measure changes in empathy, we must first better understand the neural correlates of empathy and how those neural correlates are modulated by racial biases. To do this, we will investigate EEG correlates of perceived pain in others versus self. We hypothesize we’ll be able to isolate the neural correlates of empathic pain by comparing the differences between a participant’s response to their own versus other faces and we further expect to see a racial bias such that White participants’ neural responses to their own face look more like those to White faces than to Black faces. Our research is an important first step toward better understanding the neural correlates of racially-modulated empathy and our findings will allow us to design novel interventions in order to ameliorate racial bias in individuals.  



Amy Bellinghausen, MD

Research Project: Development and Implementation of a Mindful Self-Compassion Curriculum to Reduce Burnout in Critical Care Providers

Project Description: Burnout frequently affects critical care workers, due to long work hours and high patient mortality rates. Once burnout develops, providers give less empathetic patient care. My work in the ICU Recovery Clinic – where I see thankful patients who were critically ill but now returning to health and work – has brought fulfillment to myself and others when I bring these stories back to ICU providers. Using these stories as a foundation, I aim to build and implement a compassion curriculum for critical care providers addressing both personal resiliency and moral distress. I will assess burnout pre- and post-intervention using the Maslach Burnout Inventory. The funding provided and proposed course of study will enable me to increase my knowledge of current strategies in empathy and compassion research and establish a foundation as a national leader and funded clinician scientist in critical care-related burnout study and treatment, as well as to refine the burnout curriculum further. 



Jon Dean, PhD

Research Project: Brain Mechanisms Supporting Empathy Cultivation and Phantom-limb Based Analgesia by Psilocybin Therapy

Project Description: Psilocybin is a serotonergic psychedelic that induces enhancements in positive affect, social connectedness, and empathy and compassion. Moreover, pilot studies and our own case report have demonstrated that serotonergic psychedelics including psilocybin ameliorate intractable phantom limb pain. Psilocybin decreases default mode network (DMN) activity, circuitry supporting self-referential processing, and increased DMN-sensorimotor cortex connectivity is associated with phantom pain. Existing therapies for phantom limb pain are associated with modulation of classical inhibition of pain. Yet, the psychological and neural mechanisms supporting empathy, compassion, and analgesia by psilocybin are unknown. This trial will test the effects and neural mechanisms supporting psilocybin (versus placebo-niacin) for empathy-cultivation and analgesia in individuals with chronic phantom limb pain.



Zhenggang Zhu, PhD

Research Project: The evolutionary origins of empathy – molecular and neuronal basis of social motivation in rodents

Project Description: Motivation elicited by observation of the actions of a conspecific is prominent in mammals and is an evolutionarily conserved proxy for human empathy and compassion. However, the relationship between how the brain encodes self-motivated behaviors versus social motivation is unclear. For example, are there distinct cell types in the brain for self-motivation and observation-evoked empathy, or is there a shared circuitry encoding motivated-behavioral states that reflect convergence points between self-motivated and social behaviors? This question can be investigated in the mouse hypothalamus, which has diverse cell types and is a key integratory site for self-motivation (e.g., feeding and drinking), social interaction, and encoding others' motivation. Our hypothesis is that molecularly defined hypothalamic 'empathy neurons' act as a bridge for integrating social information and interacting with the self-motivation neurons to trigger social empathy. Our project will test the hypothesis by modeling empathy behaviors, functionally identifying empathy neurons via volumetric two-photon calcium imaging, and delineating their molecular identity.



Melissa Karnaze Hedayati, PhD

Research Project: Assessment of Compassion Cultivation Training

Project Description: This qualitative evaluation study will investigate how trainees and professionals in health fields perceive facilitators and barriers to implementing Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT; Compassion Institute) in their daily lives. My main research questions are: (1) How do participants think about facilitators of, and barriers to, compassion prior to, and after completing CCT?; (2) How do they view their ability to implement CCT into daily life?; (3) How do they perceive how it feels to receive compassion, as well as show compassion to others and oneself?; and (4) How do they define compassion and thus describe situations in which compassion occurs?

2020 Fellows


Dr. Pragathi Balasubramani

Research Project: Training the Neural Basis of Empathic Training the Neural Basis of Empathic Awareness in Physician Trainees Leveraging Real-time Virtual Reality



Jacob Garrett

Research Project: Intracranial Empathy Research in Huma



Dr. Nicole La Grange

Research Project: An established paradigm for defining the physiological roots of empathy and compassion -- what can rodents teach us?



Dr. Laleh Quinn

Research Project: An established paradigm for defining the physiological roots of empathy and compassion -- what can rodents tea