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Meet a Master's Student: Jacob Ross

Name: Jacob Ross

UC San Diego Mentor: Professor In Residence Victoria Risbrough

Undergraduate Institution: UC San Diego (Neurobiology)

January 12, 2024

headshot of student Jacob Ross

Jacob Ross

Tell Us About Your Area of Focus

My research interest is an examination of the changes that occur in neural circuits in the human brain following exposure to trauma across the human lifespan. The concept of trauma leaving an indelible mark on our existences has been a part of our collective consciousness for many years, but going beyond the what and working to reveal the how is my focus. The general idea is to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a means of capturing changes in blood flow to different brain regions, to essentially identify when these neural circuits are activated; when we see similar patterns of activation (or lack thereof) at the same points in time, we can infer that these regions are all working together to affect a particular neural process. Typically we are looking at the brains of military veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), comparing their patterns of brain activity to others who do not have PTSD and correlating those differences to measures reflective of symptom severity. What I am most interested in are the effects of trauma on neurodevelopment when it occurs during the early stages of life. Having the ability to examine the neural differences we can ascribe to experiencing trauma using a non-invasive technique like fMRI allows us to gain insights that are potentially immediately relevant to the treatment of trauma-related pathologies.

Why Is This Important?

Despite being a global superpower and one of the wealthiest nations on earth, too many children in this country face a life in poverty and the consequences of systemic racial and gender discrimination and under-investment in their communities. Things like housing and food insecurity along with over-policing and lack of access to education and opportunities for upward economic mobility all flow together and can pose obstacles to people being able to live productive and happy lives. Additionally, and regardless of the political inclination or moral stance one might possess, the United States has been engaged in military operations around the globe for a long time, and all of us who served have paid some kind of price, spending our early adult years on ships and planes or on the ground in combat; some wounds are visible, others are less visible, but the somewhat uncomfortable truth is we’ve made a commitment to take care of those who have served and provide the best care possible in treating the conditions that unfortunately affect so many of us, including everything from chronic pain to depression and PTSD. Whatever the source of the trauma or the age at which it occurred, the foundation of providing that care is gaining a better understanding of the etiology and mechanisms underpinning these conditions, and it’s that notion that gets me out of bed in the morning and ready to follow the data wherever they may lead.

How Did You Get Interested In This Area?

For better or for worse, my own struggles and experiences of trauma, both as a child and as an adult, have driven my interest in doing this kind of research. There are few phenomena in the entirety of the human experience that are as universal, and we still are merely scratching the surface when it comes to truly appreciating the effects that result from traumatic experiences. It was only a little more than a half- century ago when the lobotomy was a “cutting-edge” treatment for conditions like depression, and now we are exploring the human brain non-invasively with tools like MRI in order to ask extremely nuanced questions we couldn’t even conceive of a decade or two ago. It’s a very exciting time to be in clinical neuroscience, and there are still so many unmet needs in the way of viable treatments for neuropsychiatric conditions. I’m both honored and excited to be moving the field forward one brain MRI scan at a time.

What Does A Typical Day Look Like For You?

One of the things I enjoy most about this particular kind of human subjects research is that we don’t need to be in the same place doing bench-top experiments each day.Some days I spend physically in the lab running different analyses on fMRI data that have already been collected, and other days I find myself at the UC San Diego Center for fMRI actually collecting the data as we run participants through various experimental paradigms as we scan their brains. As someone with a background in biology, it’s intriguing to think about spending more time around extremely powerful magnets in the air-conditioned MRI scanner suite than I do running western blots or pipetting under a fume hood. One of the useful adaptations we developed during the COVID-19 pandemic was more effective and productive remote work, and I’ve found that being able to affect a change in scenery and environment can be enormously valuable in seeing a problem from a new perspective and charting a course past it.

What Do You Enjoy Most About Being A Master’s Student?

I think what I enjoy most about being a master’s student is being able to focus primarily on my project each day, with a little bit of coursework here and there. Instead of constantly worrying about an unending deluge of homework assignments and exams for four or five classes at a time, I can keep my head in the literature and really approach a question from every conceivable angle and focus my energy on one big homework assignment, that being my thesis.

What Advice Do You Have For Someone Starting Out As A Master’s Student At UC San Diego?

I think it’s really important to not overload yourself with coursework during your first quarter. During our undergraduate studies there seems to be this enormous pressure on us to take as many classes as we can in order to graduate on time, and it can be really easy to forget to enjoy those classes along the way. Your first ten weeks are a great time to take a few unit’s worth of classes, and focus on establishing goals and making a plan for accomplishing them quarter by quarter and week by week. You’re going to run into unexpected challenges along the way, and it’s important to remember that your advisor and more senior members of the lab are there to help when you encounter an obstacle in your path.

What Is Your Favorite Type Of Food?

Growing up in the Bay Area here in California for me came with an endless appreciation for the huge variety of different food cultures we are lucky to have. If I had to pick just one, it would probably be dim sum, as it really is enjoyed best at a large table with friends and family, and you get the opportunity to experience so many different flavors in one meal.

What’s Something Most People Don’t Know About You?

A lot of members of my family struggle with substance use issues, and when I was still serving in the Navy I developed a dependence on opioids after they were repeatedly prescribed to me for debilitating back pain. Thankfully I had access to lots of resources which helped me to break out of that vicious cycle of addiction, but that experience ignited my passion for reducing the harms associated with opioid use and preventing overdose deaths. When I was an undergrad I approached UC San Diego Student Health Services on campus and was able to work with campus officials to start an awareness campaign and begin distributing naloxone, the opioid- overdose reversing medication, freely and anonymously to students on campus. I’m also quite involved in doing similar work via direct outreach work on the streets of downtown San Diego working with individuals actively struggling with substance use and in their greatest time of need.