Fresh Faces II Jesse Jackson

Meet Jesse Jackson, a new assistant professor in the Department of Physiology.

ROSS NEITZ - 22 August 2018

Jesse Jackson, an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology and a member of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute, is excited to unlock the inner workings of the brain in his new position at the University of Alberta. Having arrived on campus on March 1 of this year, Jackson hopes to gain a better understanding of the science behind memory and social behaviours.

What got you interested in science when you were young? How did you get to where you are today?

Actually I didn't do a lot of science growing up. I mean, I didn't even take biology in high school (laughs).

I started college and I was a geology major for a year. Then I took a class on behavioural pharmacology and the instructor was just really passionate. He was such an excellent instructor that I got really interested in the idea of trying to figure out behaviour based on the neurochemistry of the brain. He started describing how different parts of the brain are responsible for different types of behaviours and that really grabbed me. I thought, "Wow, I want to know more about this."

So I started taking more classes and I switched completely. I took more psychology classes, more physiology-based classes. And then things just started snowballing from there. That same instructor put me in touch with my undergraduate thesis advisor, my master's advisor at the University of Calgary, and I soon started working in a lab. Then I was hooked. Basically the moment I started doing actual neuroscience research is when I realized, 'This is something I need to be doing as long as I can.' Because it was fun.

What brought you to the U of A?

I grew up about two hours southeast of here in a rural farming community. I did schooling at Red Deer College, the University of Calgary, and then McGill for my PhD. I then went to the U.S. to Columbia University for a postdoctoral fellowship and continued on to a research institute called the Janelia Research Campus for a second postdoc. Afterward I started looking for a job.

This position came up and it was exciting because it was a potential opportunity to come back to Alberta. I'd always really wanted to get a position back in Canada and Alberta was my first choice. So when the job came up I moved on it rapidly and I was quite fortunate.

What do you work on?

Generally I try to figure out how parts of the brain communicate with each other. We approach this from a neuroanatomical perspective-figuring out the neuron types that send and receive signals from parts of the brain. We go in there with electrodes and different imaging techniques and we basically try to spy on these neurons to figure out when they are active, how they are active and what types of other brain signals are modulating the activity in these cells.

Ultimately I want to know how the activity in certain populations in the brain can affect behaviours, such as episodic memory. So for example, if you've been around campus quite a lot you can likely easily navigate from one part of campus to the other without much effort. That's because you've got this map built up in your brain-a rich neural representation of campus and where to go based on where you are. We try to figure out how the brain performs these types of complex computations.

What are your long-term goals for your career?

I really hope to be able to understand how the brain performs things like social memory. How is it that we can memorize or process social information and use that information to modify future behaviour? I'd really like to understand the anatomy and physiology of social memory. And that's something that requires a lot of different lines of attack-using different behavioural techniques, neuroanatomical techniques, imaging techniques and trying to build up a full mechanism of how these types of neuro-processes are being executed.

Your lab has been under construction since you arrived. Is it almost ready?

It's pretty much ready to go. We're still waiting for some rigs and some equipment to come in. It's going to be about a six-month set up still to get all of the odds and ends in place, but yeah, we're raring to go.

I'm looking forward to doing new experiments and seeing the results. I think we're doing some exciting projects and I'm curious to see how people respond to the data and to the research. I'm also really looking forward to being in a mentoring position, which is new and exciting.

Do you have any heroes?

Scientifically there are a few researchers that I really look up to within my field. People like Gyorgy Buzsaki. He's a researcher at NYU that I think is an excellent scientist and a great mentor. I look up to my parents a lot too. I think they are an excellent example of human beings, to be honest (laughs).

What interests you outside of work?

We just had a baby girl about nine months ago. So that keeps me focused and she's another inspiration. I really like watching her grow and develop. That's fascinating to me to see how rapidly children can obtain knowledge about the world and start to interact with it.

I also like to play hockey. I played a lot of hockey growing up and I still try when I can. I'm not very good anymore but I certainly like to be on the ice skating and shooting the puck around.

What position do you play?

I'm a forward. Growing up my job was to put the puck in the net. I'm a small guy and I had to have skill, otherwise I wouldn't have made any teams. I had to be able to score goals, otherwise I was getting cut (laughs).

What else do you enjoy?

I like running and reading. When I'm reading, in the last few years it's predominantly science. For the most part I'm reading papers. So my guilty pleasure might be taking a break from my grants that I'm working on and reading a random paper totally outside of my field that I find interesting.

I also play guitar a little bit. Growing up, my family was very musical and there were always instruments in the house. So that is something that if I do have a spare moment, I'll try to pluck away on some strings. It's fun.