Jake Valeri, Class of 2019

Born and raised in Nashua, New Hampshire, Jake Valeri didn’t need to look far to find a program that fits his career goals.

Discovering a Passion for Neuroscience

Jake’s interest in social work and human services in high school—and his desire for an affordable college where he could study psychology—led him to nearby Rivier University.

He found what he was looking for, and then some.

Mentorship Matters

Jake lives only five minutes from campus, but you could say this commuter student’s educational journey took him much further.

Among his many psychology classes, Jake was most drawn to those on the more physical/hard-science side. For instance, Dr. Elizabeth Harwood’s Abnormal Psychology and Drugs and Behavior classes provided him “incredibly valuable knowledge about the human brain and why it goes awry.”

Jake also credits professor Emeritus Dr. Paul Cunningham for encouraging him to pursue a career in neuroscience. Dr. Cunningham even supplied him with some ‘neuro’ textbooks and other books on human behavior from his personal collection.

“His stress on mindfulness and transcendence has not only changed how I view daily life but has also helped me in improving myself in various ways,” Jake said.

Dr. Sally Booth, Assistant Professor of Social Work and Director of Social Work Program, who also served as Jake’s internship coordinator, helped him connect some dots between disciplines in her social work class: “Taking her social work classes truly showed me the importance of clinical psychotherapy and how what I am doing in the lab can address these issues on the ground.”

Finding a Focus

Throughout his time at Rivier, Jake found those connections between neuroscience and his original passion for social work. During his first two years at Rivier he worked with a few agencies and programs, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). He was intent on sparking political activism and discussion on campus about making mental health services more accessible to low-income individuals.

“[The project] brought together psychology, public health, nursing, and criminal justice majors; we worked as a team in this endeavor,” he said of the year-long NAMI project. “This sort of interdisciplinary effort was a great learning experience for me, and it’s where I came to realize how other [areas of study] can contribute to addressing a human issue.”

Rivier’s global learning opportunities took Jake from New England to Australia. While working with a counseling clinic, he discovered a difference between what he was seeing there and the United States healthcare system.

“It was eye-opening,” he said, explaining that he learned about “many components of our current models of psychotherapy and psychiatry.” The experience led him to ask a lot of questions about the effectiveness of current treatments in the U.S. and if there was a way to expand psychiatry upon its existing framework.

“This triggered a fascination in human behavior and how the brain works and made me want to explore novel treatments for a wide array of mental illnesses,” he explained.

Real-World Experience

A job-related introduction led Jake to a life-changing internship at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. Through a professional connection, he landed an internship in McLean’s Translational Neuroscience Lab. As part of the research team, he assisted in projects that took him literally inside the (postmortem) human brain—or at least in processing, preparing, and staining brain tissue samples for examination. Alongside professional mentors, he also learned more about statistical data analysis.

“These experiences at McLean provided me with a completely new way of looking at the field of neuroscience… and inspired me to continue my education,” he said.

An Unexpected Discovery

Early in his education, Jake couldn’t see himself going beyond a bachelor’s degree. However, he said his “slight switch in interests” changed his outlook. He sought advice from his mentors, professors, and lab colleagues and came to a conclusion.

“It seemed like the next logical step to attend graduate school if I wanted to do research of my own,” he said.

After graduating in May 2019, Jake was hired as a research assistant. And, this fall, he’s headed to Jackson, Mississippi, to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience at University of Mississippi Medical Center.

From five minutes down the road to the other side of the world and, now, to the southern U.S., Jake’s educational path has been filled with professional development, scientific discovery, and personal transformation.

Learn more about the B.A. Psychology program that helped Jake find his purpose.

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