Jacob De Rosa is the Healthy Brain Network Imaging Supervisor, which means he oversees the MRI and EEG components of the study. In addition to making sure the day-to-day operations of the MRI and EEG run smoothly, he also works with Dr. Milham and other team members on ways to improve the study’s imaging data. The goal is to ensure that the imaging data from one person is comparable to the imaging data from another person, so the study can produce a high-quality open data set for researchers worldwide to use.
Healthy Brain Network: Jacob, can you tell me about some of the efforts underway to make sure the imaging data is high quality?
Jacob DeRosa: First, we’re now implementing CaseForge personalized stabilizers — custom-made helmets participants wear during their MRI scans to help eliminate motion and decrease interference in the MRI data. We’re also conducting the Human Phantom Initiative to evaluate the quality and reliability of fMRI data, both across sites and with respect to the use of CaseForge stabilizers.
HBN: How did you land at HBN?
JDR: When I first graduated from college, I asked myself what type of impact I wanted to have in my life. I knew I wanted to do something purposeful that could change people’s lives for the better. I realized from my experiences with scouting and other similar organizations that youth mental health was a big concern. I began researching organizations that work in that area and stumbled upon HBN — I immediately identified with the mission.
HBN: Can you speak briefly about why focusing on children’s mental health can change people’s lives for the better?
JDR: All parents really want to see their child succeed. Psychiatric illness is a big barrier to that. It can lead to risky behaviors, dropping out of school, substance abuse and even incarceration, having a significant impact on a person’s quality of life and “success” in life.
All the data says that 50% of psychiatric illnesses begin before age 14 and 75% begin before age 24. Parents often don’t know how to help their child. There is a tremendous opportunity to intervene and turn that sense of hopelessness parents can feel into empowerment.
HBN: You originally were a research assistant at HBN. What drew you to this MRI role?
JDR: I always wanted to move toward the neuro side of things. The root of the human body is the brain, and that’s just always fascinated me. All of our output comes from the input to the brain. If we get better at understanding how that input affects the output, we can have more impact on the output.
We’re developing a highly precise computational tool that will allow people who are not statisticians or mathematicians to conduct elegant, sophisticated data analysis to extract data-driven, meaningful subtypes or groups.
HBN: What’s the thing you like most about your job?
JDR: The challenge. A lot of this job is communication, problem solving, making the day to day operations go according to plan. No day is ever the same — it is constant problem solving. I really enjoy problem solving.
I also enjoy having the opportunity to work with the data in aggregate — we have more ability to identify the roots of mental health and learning disorders, and ultimately to impact thousands of lives.
HBN: Are there other benefits of working for HBN?
JDR: Being connected with the people who are already doing what I want to do also is helping me gain the knowledge and skill set I need to be more effective at trying to solve the problems I want to solve. Dr. Milham is someone I’ll always look up to… he sets a high bar for achievement. Yet he’s approachable. He takes a real interest in his staff and their ideas — not just for the sake of fostering collaboration and driving innovation, but also because he knows how difficult the research road can be and he wants to help his staff develop the tools they will need to stay the course, to succeed.
Dr. Milham offers staff the opportunity to work with data. If you have a research question and want to pursue it, he will give you the chance. A number of Healthy Brain Network research assistants and other staff have data analyses and papers they are working on — that’s what is awesome about HBN. HBN presents amazing opportunities to get really engaged with research — conducting data analysis, writing papers – really being at the core of developing a relevant research question and then taking a serious stab at trying to answer it. Even the most junior staff members can get the chance to do research, not just support the day-to-day operations of someone else’s project.
HBN: How many different projects are you working on right now?
JDR: I think five. I mean, five elective projects, on top of my responsibilities managing the day-to-day operations of the MRI component of HBN. Of course, keeping the study protocol and process working well is the priority. I work on those five projects on my own time.
HBN: What’s the most exciting extracurricular project you’re working on right now?
JDR: One of my favorite ones is a project I’m working on with Aki Nikolaidis. We’re developing a highly precise computational tool that can run analyses like those we run on our own data set. It will allow people who are not statisticians or mathematicians to conduct elegant, sophisticated data analysis to extract data-driven, meaningful subtypes or groups. And again, we’re openly sharing this. It’s out there for anyone doing research to use.
HBN: Why is that project particularly important?
JDR: A tool like this makes sophisticated data analysis available to a much broader range of people. It standardizes data analysis… contributing to reproducibility. It allows researchers to focus less time on data analysis and arrive at conclusions sooner and more often. That accelerates the pace of research.
All parents really want to see their child succeed. Psychiatric illness is a big barrier to that. It can lead to risky behaviors, dropping out of school, substance abuse and even incarceration, having a significant impact on a person’s quality of life and “success” in life.
HBN: So, it sounds like HBN has given you lots of interesting ideas and opportunities. How has that impacted what you see for your future?
JDR: When I first got out of undergraduate school, I thought I had all the answers about what I wanted to do, but working here challenged that. When I first began my job here, I was commuting from CT. That really tested my resolve and strengthened my desire to have an impact. So, I made the move to the city. Once I made that commitment, everything – my experiences, opportunities and goals — evolved at a rapid pace.
Although I have a lot of responsibility and opportunities in my current role, I still do not have the skill set or freedom to pursue my research goals and ideas to their fullest. That is why I want to pursue my PhD. That degree and the process of getting it will take me to the next level of the work I want to do in imaging — analyzing patterns in the brain and brain structure that could be influencing mental illness. It can be difficult to tease out what problems are really at the core of driving behaviors. Now I’ve gotten into how we can use machine learning to help with that. We know from other research studies that this approach works well. That’s really drawing me toward a focus on Cognitive Developmental Affective Neuroscience.