Academic Success Story: Jesse Brown, Ph.D.

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Dr. Jesse Brown is somewhat of an enigma—equal parts laid-back San Diegan, intensely focused neuroscientist, deep philosopher, and incredibly kind friend.

I first met Jesse in 2009 during a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco for a neuroscience conference. A few miles into our drive, we stopped for gas in a strip mall in the San Fernando Valley (LA's version of the boonies), where Jesse asked, "Where in the world are we?" In response, I launched into an enthusiastic diatribe about the virtues of growing up there, to which he patiently listened. Despite (probably) thinking I was a weirdo, he made several trips with me to my favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurants there and took the time to mentor me on my Master’s thesis, all while making significant findings about Alzheimer’s disease risk and earning major fellowships like the National Research Service Award (NRSA) and his own grant.

Whereas Jesse may be a mystery, there is no secret as to why I like him so much, or why you should read his insights about pursuing a science Ph.D. and beyond. He’s a young wise old man, offering thoughtful bigger picture responses to seemingly simple questions without ever making you feel inferior. He proves my point in this interview.

Shirag: What are you currently up to?

Jesse: I’m a Postdoctoral Scholar in the Selective Vulnerability Research Lab at UCSF doing research on a day-to-day basis. I’m currently analyzing neuroimaging (e.g., MRI) data of various subtypes of frontotemporal dementia (FTD; a neurological disorder related to Alzheimer’s disease). Our lab has data from a longitudinal study (i.e., at multiple points over time) of patients with various FTD subtypes, and we’re looking for progressive neuronal loss in the brain of people who have the disease. I’m also looking at progressive changes in how their brain areas communicate with one another.

Shirag: Why are you doing this work?

Jesse: It’s most important for finding out how many people with FTD you would need to include in a clinical trial for a drug or other treatment. I would say my work is half basic science (i.e, understanding how things work) and half applied.

Shirag: Let’s rewind and go many years back. Why did you decide to attend Berkeley for undergrad?

Jesse: It had the best academic reputation of all the schools I got into. Also, it was far enough from home that I would be in a totally new environment. That was a big part of my decision.

Shirag: What did you enjoy most about attending Berkeley?

Jesse: I really like the campus. It’s a classical, cohesive, contained campus. There are lots of old buildings, new buildings, trees, and grass. Being there made me feel like I was somewhere important. I think of Berkeley as hallowed ground, a place with famous buildings and radical thought (e.g., The Free Speech Movement). Maybe I care about these things more as an academic (laughs).

Shirag: What are the top 3 things students should consider in choosing an undergraduate institution?

Jesse: Definitely the school’s overall academic record. You’re so young when you enter college and most students don’t end up studying what they initially went into. For example, if you went into engineering but then wanted to be premed, you can change your major and still be in a great program.

It’s also important to go to a school with a good college town. Berkeley has a great college atmosphere, with student housing right next to the school. The city really revolves around the campus. I wouldn’t have wanted to attend a commuter school.

I also recommend going to college near a big city for practical and elevated reasons. Big cities have a lot of culture, public transit, and nearby airports to get home for the holidays, like thanksgiving. Convenience goes a long way in college (laughs)

Shirag: So, after college, did you go straight to grad school? And why did you pursue Neuroscience?

Jesse: Before grad school, I took 4 years off. I spent some time traveling around the world and then wanted to live in San Diego. I wasn’t yet sure about grad school, so I worked as an engineer at a mobile apps company for a year and a half. Eventually, I wanted to return to science, so I got a job at Scripps as a technician. My boss at the structural biology lab encouraged me to go to graduate school. I liked microbiology, but I really wanted to study my biggest scientific curiosity, the brain.

Shirag: Where is your favorite place you traveled?

Jesse: Probably Brazil. It was the first foreign place I went by myself. I remember taking a cab to see massive Rio’s favelas and was stunned by the city’s tropical beauty. The people were nice, and the food was cheap and good. It was a very raw experience; I was done with college and had no attachments or distractions, so I was completely open and exposed to a world with new people and new stimuli.

Shirag: What do you wish you knew before pursuing a Ph.D. in a science field?

Jesse: I think I lucked out in joining the lab of a full professor (Dr. Susan Bookheimer; check out half of Jesse’s face behind Susan’s head) who had more grant funding than average and is also well established. The funding and her reputation made it easier to get a NRSA and my own grant. I feel that a lot of my success was based on my environment in addition to the science I wrote. In all of my grant applications, reviewers commented on me having a strong training environment, in large part because Susan was a known quantity. Also, because of her position and her personality, she gave me independence, which I hadn’t initially considered to be very important in a mentor. Susan was hands-off, which let me explore more broadly.

Shirag: What’s the coolest thing you stumbled into?

Jesse: Thinking about the brain as a network and analyzing it with that framework. That approach came about when I started grad school. It was cool to be part of that movement from the get-go and help it mature a little bit. I loved seeing how those talks at conferences were the most popular and know that I was a small part of it.

Shirag: How has academia met your expectations? Any surprises?

Jesse: I’ve learned that there’s more space for different types of career goals. There are people who just want to teach or just do research. You can also decide whether you want to do clinical vs. basic science research. The point is that not everyone has to be a tenure track professor. The other thing, which hasn’t exactly been a surprise, is sacrificing money by going to school for years to do this work. You see friends making a lot of money right out of college, who are now buying houses. In academia, you’re a bit behind financially.

Shirag: How do you reconcile that?

Jesse: Personally, I love knowing that my work has the potential to change people’s lives. I have one foot in academia and also want found a science startup someday. Also, all is not lost. I may have a buddy making $200,000 a year as a product manager at Google, but I know that I can found a company that makes a substantial sum of money and simultaneously improves people’s health and overall quality of life. My dream is to do something high impact; the money will come.

Shirag: Is there any downside to Americans placing a high cultural value on doing something big?

Jesse: Sure. I think we strike out a lot, but we also innovate more.

Shirag: What advice do you have for individuals who want to pursue science or academia in general?

Jesse: I think it’s a good idea to study a hot area that’s getting a lot of attention because science moves so fast these days. Communities form really quickly around discoveries, like the identification of a new gene, etc. It’s nice to pursue a topic with a lot of active discussion. As a grad student, that can be really exciting. You’re learning a lot and new papers are frequently getting published; I think you learn more deeply from an area that’s livelier. Also, it’s not as important for your grad program to have broad strength; it’s better to have a deep strength in one area (e.g., neuroimaging, learning and memory).

Shirag: Any book recommendations for readers?

Jesse: I’m gonna go with the book that changed my perspective in college: Way of the Peaceful Warrior. It opened up my eyes beyond my limited focus to help me appreciate how small we are in a big universe. It’s semi auto-biographical and semi-fictional. It’s about a student who went to Berkeley in the 60s and met a kind of wacky guy, who turns out to be a wise character. The man helps the student recognize modern culture’s limited thinking and opens him up to a universal, all-encompassing view of the world. It provides a positive and inspiring view of life that has been a source of continual motivation for me.

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