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She thrives on challenging herself

Rochester Business Journal
June 5, 2015

A three-time novelist, amateur chef, blogger and brain tester are some of the ways Sarah Westendorf can be described.

At 26, she has found a way to balance her interests with her practical livelihood.

Westendorf is director of clinical operations for Pittsford-based Cerebral Assessment Systems Inc. The firm is devoted to automated testing of brain function.

Westendorf graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 2010 with a B.A. in neuroscience and behavior. She returned to Rochester soon after to figure out her next step. After working a part-time job as a line cook she landed a job at the University of Rochester as a lab technician in 2011.

She worked in a lab focused on the vestibular system to help better understand the feeling of motion sickness or vertigo.

“I basically decapitated turtles (and) pulled out their inner ears (to see) the vestibular system, which is responsible for your body sensing where it is in space,” Westendorf says. “People get vertigo or motion sickness because of problems with the vestibular system.”

After a year the program grant expired, leaving Westendorf in a bind. However, she soon found an opportunity in the university’s neurology department.

In 2012 she met Charles Duffy M.D., president and CEO of Cerebral Assessment Systems. Being hired as the third full-time employee at the startup was a thrill for the young professional.

“I never thought that I would be involved with something potentially so big,” Westendorf says. “Working for a startup has its advantages and disadvantages. For a young person it’s a great opportunity because you could end up doing something huge. And if it crashes, then in a couple of years … you can apply the skills that you’ve learned to another job.”

The company tests for deviations on normal aging. Alzheimer’s disease can be a real fear for older people, which makes testing bittersweet at times, Westendorf says.

“It’s the biggest fear of Americans over the age of 50 behind cancer,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking, and you get invested and you want to do as much as you can to help that.”

The company tests residents in assisted and independent living facilities throughout Rochester.

“The people that we test who are participating in our research studies they know that our company is creating something that won’t really help them,” Westendorf says. “But they’re doing it for their children and their grandchildren and for future generations, who hopefully won’t have to deal with watching 30 percent of their friends develop dementia.”

One main goal of Cerebral Assessment Systems is to make brain health part of a routine doctor’s visit. The need to actively track the progression of one’s brain through aging should be as common as any other checkup, officials say.

“Our company is trying to make monitoring your own brain health a concern in the primary care practices,” Westendorf says. “Anything that you can do that keeps your brain moving and your body moving is beneficial. It’s not like starting that in your 50s is going to prevent it, but it’s helping.

“It’s a huge industry and we’re only a small part of it, but essentially we’re going to be able to help all of it,” she adds.

In her spare time, Westendorf focuses on creative outlets. She has written three romance novels: “Passion’s Tide,” “Starting from Scratch” and “Baking Bree.”

“I’ve always been a writer, and I’ve always been a huge reader,” Westendorf says. “And one of my favorite genres was romance novels because I like the way that you can shut down your brain and just enjoy a story and get swept into it and you don’t have to think.”

She also writes a food blog, dashandapinch.com, where she has documented her journey as an amateur chef.

Balancing a practical career with personal interests requires follow through. Westendorf believes in continuing to pursue all of her interests, lucrative or not.

“I told myself I wasn’t going to be an artist because I couldn’t make money with it and I should go into science,” Westendorf says. “And I work in science and I like it, but at the same time I’m still doing the art.”

The point is to keep pursuing interests, even if they can’t be full-time, she says.

“Don’t abandon what you love,” Westendorf says. “If you’re really passionate about something don’t abandon it. Do something on the side that will make you happy and relax you and that will probably help you with your career.”

In her career, Westendorf has always wanted to push herself. She’s not afraid to work hard or to try something new to find her edge.

“I’ve never been a shy person to just coast through life,” Westendorf says. “I wanted to take a risk and be rewarded for working hard at something.”

6/5/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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