HealthChats Recap: Journey to Becoming a Neuroscientist


In the latest HealthChats, Associate Professor Darrell Jackson shares his journey in becoming a neuroscientist. It was not a linear path, with many obstacles and sometimes dead ends, but Jackson’s optimism, perseverance, and curiosity always led him back on to the path of studying what he loved most: neuroscience.

Jackson spent his formative years growing up in western Washington in the 1970s, during civil unrest, when racism was widespread.

“I remember on this radio station, I had to be about eight or ten, and they were talking about intelligence…This was during the time of a lot of the civil rights upheaval that was going on, that the spokesperson on the radio was indicating that African Americans weren’t as intelligent because of the size of their brains, and they were not as intelligent as the majority,” said Jackson as he recalled his childhood growing up in Seattle. “And it just stuck with me because it made absolutely no sense.”

Jackson said that he had always been curious about learning, memory, and cognitive behavior. Much of his research now centers on ischemic stroke and diseases that impact cognitive behavior. However, his deep dive into neuroscience began during a middle school field trip to the University of Washington.

“It was kind of boring! For some reason I lost interest,” said Jackson, who left the group to wander around and found himself in the department of neurosurgery. After a short conversation with a research technician there, Jackson was invited to come back where he took two buses daily to start interning at the University of Washington. Thus, began his long journey of ups and downs in researching matters of the brain and finding his footing at Lincoln University, a historically black college/university, based in Philadelphia. Jackson had aspired to become a neurosurgeon and began medical school at Temple University before dropping out after eight months due to financial struggles and the inability to receive financial aid.

“[My parents] were just so depressed,” said Jackson, when he saw his parents for the first time after leaving medical school. “I don’t think they said a word to me when they picked me up.”

Fast-forward three decades and Jackson has become one the most highly respected professors and researchers for the College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Earlier this year, Jackson was awarded nearly half a million dollars by the National Institutes of Health to continue his research on oxidative stress on the aged brain.

“Believe in yourself. Believe in what you want to become. Never let anyone distract you from your goals in terms of what you want to do. Always reach out to individuals you can relate to that will play a role in mentoring you, but also having a thick skin,” said Jackson to students who want to pursue a similar path as his. “There’s going to be times where you know…you’re being treated differently. The best thing to do with that is sometimes confront it, and other times, if you don’t think it’s worth your time, just let it go. What you don’t want to do is create a pessimistic mind in your behavior.”