Faculty Spotlight: Jean-Pierre Roussarie, PhD

Jean-Pierre Roussarie, PhD, is an assistant professor of anatomy & neurobiology at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. His lab studies the molecular events leading to neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Roussarie is also a Community Catalyst Center mentor for the gGLOBAL and gPLUS affinity groups.

Tell me about your journey to Boston. What brought you here?

I was born in the U.S. but spent most of my life in France. My dad was a researcher at Stanford when I was born, a physicist, but when I was 2, my family moved to France and I grew up in the suburbs of Paris. I went to an engineering school in Paris and then did my PhD at the Pasteur Institute. I was always attracted by the U.S., and so, I always thought I would go back there at one point. I was always attracted by New York, in particular. After the PhD, it’s very customary in France, like in a lot of countries, to go do your postdoc in the U.S. So, when I finished my PhD, started a postdoc in NY at Rockefeller University in Manhattan. I was initially supposed to spend two or three years in NY before moving back to France, to find a job in academia. And I ended up spending 14 years in New York.

One of the reasons I stayed for that long is because it was very comfortable. It was a nice research environment. I had a project that I was very excited about, working on Alzheimer’s disease. I did not really have the impulse to search for a job earlier. But when my postdoc mentor passed away in 2019, it was the impulse to look for a job. I found a job at the medical school here and started just a year ago. I’m still working on the same project that I was working on during my postdoc, on Alzheimer’s disease.

Was your PhD in neuroscience?

It was in neurovirology. Mostly virology, but the virus I was studying infects the brain and spinal cord of the mouse. It’s funny, because I was initially dreaming of doing a PhD on a very dangerous virus, in a BSL-4 lab, and ended up working on a virus that only infects mice, not humans. Pretty far from my initial idea. Since the virus infects the nervous system of the mouse, it gave me a first taste of studying the brain. I realized that I was mostly interested in the brain part of my PhD, and a bit less in the virus part, and so, I reoriented myself to neuroscience for my postdoc.

What drew you toward the “brain part”? What about that is so exciting for you?

I think it’s the possibility to, at the same time, be doing very practical experiments – whether you’re doing molecular neuroscience or molecular virology, you’re doing, in the end, very similar experiments (Western blots, immunofluorescence, etc…) – yet be touching such amazing concepts like memory, for example. It’s just mind-blowing that you can be doing these very simple looking – it’s never actually simple, obviously – but simple-looking experiments, and yet, be working on these amazing concepts. Obviously, you’re not, on a day-to-day-basis, trying to crack memory, but you’re still working on something that has do to with memory.

Can you talk about some of the research you’re doing in your lab now?

We’re trying to understand why there are certain types of neurons that are dying very early on in Alzheimer’s disease while some other types of neurons are resisting until the very late stages of the disease. The neurons that are very vulnerable are the ones that are central in the formation of new memories. They are in a very specific area in the brain. And within this area it is a very specific group of neurons that dysfunction years before the first symptoms occur and degenerate. And we have no idea why these neurons are particularly affected.

If we understand why these neurons are different from others, why these neurons are affected very early on, we think it will give us a hint of the genes that are particularly important in neurodegeneration. That will potentially allow us to design therapies to prevent neurons from degenerating to start with.

These neurons are really, really, cool. These neurons are combining all of the sensory information that you encounter on a day-to-day basis in order to make memories – they are just amazing. They are essential to form the very vivid memory of watching a sunset while chatting with friends, or of your favorite vacation spot.

To me, these neurons are possibly the coolest neurons in the brain, and I was dealing with such exciting things when I was studying a mouse virus during my PhD. I’m very glad to be doing what I’m doing now.

What drew you to Boston University?

BU was the best offer that I got. But I was convinced very rapidly that it was a great place to establish my research group when I visited my future department (Anatomy & Neurobiology), which seemed more diverse, open, and inclusive than a number of other neuroscience departments in other universities and  extremely collegial. A lot of people are collaborating with other people from the department. It’s very family-like. People are listening to one another; people are respectful of each other’s research. It is rare to have such an amazing atmosphere, so conducive to do great research.

What are some of the most exciting things you’ve been able to achieve through your career?

The most exciting and frightening and challenging thing has been to establish my lab. It’s scary to go from being part of a larger group where you are not the only one making decisions, to finding myself last year alone in my empty office, with nobody around, being the sole person responsible for my destiny. It was very frightening.

But I then started to hire people: initially two undergrads, then rotation students and master’s students. I now have a PhD student that just started, a research assistant… And I’m starting to feel that it’s not just me anymore, but a collective effort. It’s starting to feel much better. It’s also very, very exciting to see that you’re not the only one that’s interested by these memory forming neurons, but it’s actually a group of people that share the same interest and collectively work towards that. And it’s really exciting.

Have you experienced any major challenges in your career? How did you overcome them?

In research, you are confronted with failures so often.

You submit papers, and they get rejected; you submit grants, and they get rejected. And then you look for an academic position and you also have to face a string of rejections.

At this point, if I didn’t have the impression that what I’m doing is good, I think I would have found another job. I knew that the research I was doing was good. But at the same time, all these people tell you that you are not good enough for their journal or their department. It is challenging to continue to believe in yourself when you have all of these rejections. Now that I have my group, it is easier. It’s this collective adventure, it’s much easier to accept the failures. But the moments before getting my position at BU were a little tough.

I know that you’re a mentor for both gPLUS and gGLOBAL within the Community Catalyst Center. I’m curious if you have found that these identities have played a role in your perspectives as a researcher or previously as a student, or even just as a person?

Very much so. In terms of where I feel like I’m coming from, my home country or hometown, it’s very complicated at this point. After having lived for 15 years outside of the country where I grew up, I don’t know anymore where I’m from, I’m actually from a bunch of different places instead of just one place. It sometimes feels great because it feels like I am able to get amazing things from a bunch of different places, but sometimes it feels alienating, because I don’t know where I belong. After 15 years in New York, I started to feel like I was really belonging somewhere, and then I’m uprooted and transplanted in Boston, and I don’t know anybody in Boston, and it’s difficult to construct this new identity.

At this point I have a very composite identity. I have these amazing roots in France, all my family is there, and I still have so many friends there. I go back often, so that’s indestructible. I also have all these roots now in New York. And just sometimes it’s a little bit difficult to negotiate all of that.

There are moments when it can be a little bit distressing. There are also moments when it just feels great to be your own thing, and to be unlike any other. Because at this point, when you’re adding all these layers of identity, you feel pretty unique. Not that I’m deriving pride in that, but it sometimes feels nice.

It goes a little bit in the same direction as my identity as a gay man. I have always felt, growing up, that I was a little bit different from the others. I wasn’t out until the age of 30 or something. I came out not long after I arrived in the U.S. Having moved to the U.S. probably made it a little bit easier to come out, because it is more difficult to reinvent yourself when you are surrounded by people who have known you for a while. It was just a little bit easier to express myself freely, once in a new environment, after moving to the US.

At this point of my life, I am very much at peace with these different layers of identities. I manage to negotiate well, I think, when I go back to my friends, or my mom and she tells me that I’m so American. I am not even upset about it anymore!

Have you been able to find strong communities of international scientists and scientists within the LGBTQ+ community throughout your career?

When it comes to the international community. I would say that this was probably the easiest. At every university there’s a very vibrant international postdoc community, because so many postdocs are coming from abroad. Being a postdoc in New York, it’s basically harder to find an American postdoc than it is to find an international postdoc. I was very much surrounded by, a French, but more generally international, postdoc community in New York. So that was really nice: you share the same problems to adapt, and the same problems to be far from your home. That was relatively easy.

What became harder is when I stayed in the U.S., and I saw that everybody was moving out of the US, going back “home.” I was thinking: “Oh, wait! Should I go away as well, or is it fine if I’m staying here?”  It’s almost like changing category by going from being an international postdoc to become an international postdoc that stayed in the U.S. So, you lose your community, because not so many international postdocs end up staying. Becoming international faculty at BU, though, is easy; a lot of faculty are coming from elsewhere as well.

When it comes to the LGBT community. I never had too much of an LGBT science community in New York. When I first came out, there was not so much of an open LGBT community at Rockefeller, where I was before. There started to be a really vibrant LGBT group more recently. But since I arrived at BU, I am very excited to be able to connect more with the LGBT community here in Boston than I used to before. I’m very excited about embracing this identity more when I’m here. I’m very excited about the C3 initiative potentially being more part of this community here.

What led you to want to work with students through the C3 community groups?

Definitely during my PhD, there were absolutely zero LGBT models around. Like zero. I would have absolutely loved to have had some kind of LGBT mentor back then. I wasn’t necessarily ready to come out then. But knowing that it was possible to be an LGBT scientist, that you could be able to be a successful researcher, a successful postdoc or PhD student while being gay — it would have probably helped me coming out earlier. If I can very, very modestly contribute to some members of the LGBT community to be a little bit more themselves, and just be more comfortable with their identity by providing some kind of – I hate saying that I could be a role model – but just like a figure that is a faculty in the same medical school who manages to be out as a gay faculty. I think I’d love to do that.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists, researchers, students – especially students who belong to identity categories like international students and LGBTQ+ students?

It is a very difficult world. Academic research can be most rewarding and most exciting; at the same time, it’s also a very, very difficult world. It’s very important to have good mentors who can help you make the right decisions for the kind of career that you would like to have, for the kind of education that you would like to have. It’s very important to have mentors that can support you in lots of different ways.

It’s also very easy to feel isolated in a large university like BU. The more community you can build around yourself to support you, the better it will be. Don’t just be content with having a few professors as your favorite mentors. Initiatives like the C3 initiative can be great because you can build a rapport with a variety of mentors that can support you through all of the different things that you are, and you will be able to turn to the most indicated mentor for whatever experience you’re going through.

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do for fun in Boston?

I love music. In New York, I used to love going to the opera. Unfortunately, there’s no opera in Boston, but I sing a little bit myself and I was in a choir in New York. I sang with the BU choir last year. I haven’t had the time to start again this year, but I am hoping I can start again soon.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.