Benjamin Suarez-Jimenez, Ph.D., joined the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience in January 2021 as an assistant professor in Neuroscience. He received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of Puerto Rico and went on to complete his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College London. His research focuses primarily on advanced understanding of anxiety disorders and stress.
Tell us a little bit about your research.
My research focuses on understanding the neural mechanism of how the brain learns about the environment, particularly to predict where it is threatening and where it is safe. I investigate neural signatures of anxiety disorders and PTSD using virtual reality environments. I study how we build maps in our brain – much of which is experience based – where someone has experienced danger and/or happiness. I’m working to understand how we build those maps and how the maps then become psychopathologies of stress and anxiety. A lot of people who have a stress, trauma, or excessive anxiety kind of blur these lines and are not able to differentiate a safe area from a dangerous one.
How did you become interested in your field of study?
It was a combination of personal experiences, research I was doing as a post-doc, and my mentors. I’m from Puerto Rico and as a teen went to the only public boarding school at the time, which specialized in math and sciences. It was a stressful time for me and my peers. A lot of people dropped out, but it pushed me to do better. Looking back, it was the first time I started considering the types of questions about stress and anxiety that I’m asking today. Although I still didn’t go into science right away. I started undergrad as an engineering major before switching to psychology. That’s when I was introduced to research and started to get involved with projects that had to do with resilience. During this time, my brothers enlisted in the military and were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw how they were changing and eventually developed PTSD. I wanted to learn more about it and anxiety disorders in general, including how we can improve treatment, and better diagnosis these disorders. Currently, there are not behavioral markers to look for, we just know what people tell us. As part of a partnership program with the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) and the University College London, my job was to link labs that didn’t necessarily talk to each other. NIMH was focusing on anxiety disorders in children and adults, and the lab in London was dealing with learning and memory and using virtual reality, which was my first introduction with the technology.
What brought you to the University of Rochester?
There were a lot of things happening in my life when the opportunity at the University came my way, including Black Lives Matter, and the way minorities are represented in the sciences. I’m gay, Puerto Rican, mix race – my dad is Black, my mom is white. I had read a letter about diversity and inclusion that resonated with me because it laid out clear action, and wasn’t just another leader in academia saying the right thing. I would later learn the letter was written by John Foxe, Ph.D. This was after he approached me about my research and use of virtual reality. He expressed interest in expanding the virtual reality work through partnerships within academia and the industry itself. The diversity and inclusion movement, support for virtual reality work coupled with the collaborative nature current faculty shared with me about the University, all helped lead me here. And honestly, another reason is people looked happy when I was talking with them. My background is very family oriented and the unity and feel of community I got from Rochester really attracted me.
Who are you looking forward to collaborating with?
Manuel Gomez-Ramirez, Ph.D., assistant professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences approached me because of my experience with animal models and MRI and determining where electrodes need to be placed on the brain for these tests. Also Mark Noble, Ph.D., professor of Neuroscience and Biomedical Genetics who is working on how we can use short psychotherapies to really cure disorders. Because I want to continue my work with veterans, I’m looking forward to working with Wilfred Pigeon, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor who works with the VA. I’m excited to get to know the other faculty and work collaboratively. There’s research that will complement mine well that I think will allow for more creativity.
Do you have a favorite piece of advice?
Over my career, I've had so many different types of mentors. They have shaped me in a way of becoming a better mentor, which in turn helped me become a better researcher. But I've learned to balance my life and my work. When I was in London, I saw how people were very productive and yet would often take time to themselves and their families, which was very different when I came back to the states. I had to make a concerted effort to be successful and productive, while still maintaining a healthy life. It’s a balance I try to teach my students – to manage their career and life as much as possible. I want them to enjoy what they are doing, because research is fun.
I’m very excited to be a part of the University and the Neuroscience Department. I’m really looking forward to participating more with the Neuroscience Diversity Commission. I guess I can do research anywhere but the support is not something that you get everywhere and I really value that.
Originally published in NEUROSCIENCE Volume 8.