Alumni Q & A: Jennie Z. Young

From undergraduate labs at U of A to the helm of a new Canadian research initiative, Jennie Z. Young has crafted a career devoted to the human brain.

Adrianna MacPherson - 20 July 2021

Jennie Z. Young has spent her entire adult life studying the brain. In March 2021, she was appointed executive director for the Canadian Brain Research Strategy, an initiative that seeks to bring together clinicians and scientists with communities, patient organizations and private and public funders to create a collaborative national effort to advance brain science. “We want to bring everybody together to be able to lift the field as a whole,” says Young.

Young, who grew up in Fort McMurray, Alberta, was drawn to Edmonton as an undergraduate by the University of Alberta’s honours neuroscience program, and ended up doing both her undergraduate (’99) and graduate degrees (’05) here at the U of A. Afterwards, she headed to Boston to take on post-doctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate Susumu Tonegawa. This experience grew into operational and strategic leadership “scientific chief of staff” roles in that lab and the laboratory of current Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai.

A personal event prompted both Young’s return to Canada and her shift to a new position outside academia. Young’s grandmother, who had dementia, passed away in 2019 and she selected Brain Canada, a national research funding agency to be her memorial charity. “I had always been a big fan of Brain Canada and was at the Canadian Association for Neuroscience meeting in 2010 where they announced a $100-million investment from the government,” says Young. “It was just amazing to see the government believing in research, believing in science, believing that we should understand the brain, to make that investment. And it made a tremendous impact on me because that money was to set up programs to support team science.” 

“So in doing some research into the organization for my grandmother’s memorial, I found that they had a job opening. I have always appreciated how collaborative Canadian researchers are—I was always encouraging my friends at MIT to apply for jobs in Canada—so I came back because it was an opportunity to see firsthand the top-notch research being funded across the country, and to support this collaborative approach to science.”

What inspired you to study neuroscience?

I went to the preview days [for U of A undergraduates]; I was in Grade 11. The undergraduate honours neuroscience program was new at the time and I remember going to the booth and reading about it. The classes were spread across something like five departments—zoology, psychology, physiology, rehabilitation medicine and pharmacology. I was first of all fascinated with trying to understand how the brain works, but then seeing this multidisciplinary approach was just really intriguing. That’s what drew me to this cutting-edge program, as I don’t think there were that many neuroscience programs across the country at the time, so that’s what made me apply to U of A.

How did your time at the U of A shape your career?

The multidisciplinary approach from the honours neuroscience program—that is the only way we’re going to understand the brain. I think that has really shaped my perspective because that program was very broad. Seeing the brain from all those different perspectives, and then to see the commonalities, was just fascinating. And I think that really summarizes what the neuroscience field, which has grown even bigger, is now—you need a transdisciplinary approach. Another lasting influence from my time at U of A was my honours thesis advisor, Bill Dryden. He was my very first science mentor and I was so incredibly fortunate that it was him. He was pivotal in laying a solid foundation of how to conduct good science and he was also just a really good human being. He sadly passed away in 2012 but he continues to inspire my love of science.

Why is collaboration so important to research?

It’s absolutely critical. There is so much we still don’t know about the brain, and there are so many levels of the brain to study, and this is a bit different from studying other organs in the body. The scale goes all the way from the cellular/molecular level—the regulation of what genes are being expressed—to how neurons are connecting to each other to form local networks, to how different brain areas interact with each other and global brain states. And then there’s an additional level of complexity when you consider social aspects and interactions between people. So then you need all of the different technologies and approaches to study the brain at all of these scales, which means you need other disciplines to come in. It’s not just the zoologists, pharmacologists, psychologists that were in my undergraduate program. We need materials engineers, population health scientists, physicists and people in implementation science and so on. We need to be all working towards a common goal and that’s the only way we’re going to be able to make any real progress in something as complex as the brain. Everybody has their own piece to play in it and the key will be to integrate knowledge across all of these different scales.

What role do you think initiatives such as the Canadian Brain Research Strategy (CBRS) play in advancing research?

I think it appeals to how Canadians like to do science, which is with a very collaborative and open approach to research. There is room for the competitive aspects that push discovery, but the fact that people also see the value in sharing their research, their reagents, their protocols—that’s what lets us have such a large impact for a relatively small country. What’s interesting is that when I was at Brain Canada, working with all these different funding partners—health charities, public funding agencies, private foundations and so on—I saw that they had a similarly open attitude towards collaboration. And so I think the collaborative approach to research extends beyond the researchers and includes everyone in all sectors of the larger research ecosystem. So that’s the role I see for CBRS. We want to bring together all of these different stakeholders—researchers and funders, with patients and the broader community—to create a national strategy for brain research that will benefit all Canadians.

One in three Canadians will be impacted by a brain or nervous system illness, disorder or injury in their lifetime. Why is understanding the brain such an important challenge right now?

There is a rising burden in brain disorders, and with our aging population, that burden of disease is just going to increase. COVID has also brought up other issues—of course the repercussions on mental health that everybody is now concerned about, but there are also some neurological effects of COVID that we don’t fully know about yet. In addition, the deplorable impact of COVID in our long-term care homes revealed how large that vulnerable population is, and I think it’s because we don’t have better treatments for aging-related neurological disorders. So, there’s both the demographics of our population and these acute things that have happened with COVID, which have brought to the forefront this urgent need to support and make advances in brain research.