in Features
April 12th, 2019

While juggling the various responsibilities of college life, many undergraduates dream of a well-defined career path with straightforward steps to a successful life. However, life is always full of uncertainties, and that seemingly direct path may quickly reveal itself as a winding road. Dr. Stern is no stranger to this unexpected occurrence, but he prefers to embrace the serendipity of it:

“A winding path is a bit more of an adventure– it’s also a little more fun.”

Dr. Stern’s own path has taken him through numerous academic institutions and places of employment up and down the East Coast. His journey has presently brought him back to Boston as a prominent professor and researcher at the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM). Dr. Stern is one of the most influential research scientists in the field of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease which plagues the brains of many NFL players today, as well as others with a history of repetitive blows to the head.

Growing up, Dr. Stern had wanted to be either a physician or a Broadway star. While applying to colleges, he searched for a school where he could potentially pursue both of his dreams. Ultimately, he decided on Wesleyan University. Though he settled for a major in biology and was determined to become a surgeon, a presentation by noted Harvard physician Dr. Herbert Benson – one of the pioneers of the Mind/Brain movement — swayed Dr. Stern to the brain sciences.

After changing his major to Psychology and planning to conduct his senior thesis on loneliness and heart disease, he had to shift gears because his mentor suddenly left the school.  He then found another advisor, but changed the focus of his thesis to loneliness and its relationship to depression. During this time, he noticed a general lack of mental health support for the student population at Wesleyan. Inspired, he co-founded and directed a college peer counseling hotline he named ‘8-to-8’. The project was one of the first of its kind in the country (and is still in existence almost 40 years later), and played a role in Dr. Stern’s desire to work more closely with people.

While Dr. Stern helped others make the connections they needed, he himself ended up reconnecting with a former high school classmate, Ruthanne. Out of the blue, she contacted him seeking advice on her possible transfer to Wesleyan. Through a long phone call and a meeting over drinks, he convinced her to join him in Connecticut. Their discussions unknowingly signified the start of their romance as Ruthanne and Dr. Stern would eventually marry.

Following graduation from Wesleyan, Dr. Stern helped develop a similar peer counseling program at Andover High School for two years. And, during that time, he decided to dive into the emerging field of behavioral medicine. He was admitted to the Clinical Psychology doctoral program at the University of Rhode Island (URI) where he completed his master’s thesis in 1984 the progressive stages of cigarette smoking acquisition in adolescents. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the experience he had hoped for.

“I hated every second of it,” Dr. Stern laughs.

Feeling like he had gone down the wrong path, Dr. Stern decided to shift directions and join a practicum training program at a psychiatric hospital. The program was Dr. Stern’s first exposure to the field of neuropsychology. He enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to apply for a pre-doctoral internship at the Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Boston. This highly competitive position was overseen by the late Dr. Edith Kaplan, a pioneer in clinical neuropsychology. Fortunately for Dr. Stern, he had connected with Dr. Kaplan previously while taking her classes at BUSM — some of which he teaches today.

After securing the internship, Dr. Stern went on to grind out many 100-hour work weeks the following year. He then stayed on at the VA completing his dissertation research on depressive symptoms following stroke. The technology available at the time (CT scans were relatively new and MRI scans were not yet developed) restricted stroke localization to somewhat crude brain regions. But, even the ability to quantify moods like sadness in aphasic stroke patients lacking. In response, Dr. Stern developed the Visual Analog Mood Scale (VAMS).

“If it doesn’t exist, create it,” Dr. Stern said. “What started out as silly little drawings of a happy face and a sad face eventually turned into commercially published, standardized visual analog mood scales.”

As Dr. Stern was finishing his Ph.D., Ruthanne matched for her ophthalmology residency at Duke University. Dr. Stern managed to follow her southwards, moving to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in neuropsychology and psychoneuroendocrinology from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Conveniently for them, the two universities sit only twenty minutes away (though during basketball season, the rivalry made the distance feel much further), and they eagerly took on their new positions. Dr. Stern was publishing and writing grants and getting grants and developing new areas of expertise. Chaos quickly overcame this eagerness when responsibilities piled on. Among the new responsibilities came parenthood, as Ruthanne gave birth to their two children — a boy and a girl – one during residency and the other before fellowship training. Dr. Stern and Ruthanne moved closer to Boston when their youngest was one, and Dr. Stern found a new position at Brown Medical School.

A couple years after settling into their new home, Dr. Stern and his family were struck with somber news. Ruthanne had developed breast cancer. After a year of treatments, their lives returned to normal. Dr. Stern received several grants on topics ranging thyroid-brain relationships to HIV-associated brain disorders. He directed a memory clinic and a training program, and spent over 7 years developing a new, extensive neuropsychological test battery. However, after five years of health, Ruthanne had a recurrence of the cancer. A year and a half later, she passed away at the age of 43. Dr. Stern’s once-wonderful experience at Brown became dull in this troubling time. Funding was drying out, major collaborators were leaving or no longer available, and Dr. Stern was left a single parent with a long drive from Needham, a suburb of Boston, to Providence, Rhode Island. Yet while life was far from perfect, Dr. Stern’s children were healthy, happy, and wonderful and that was the most important thing.

Dr. Stern never believed he would encounter love again, but as his past shows, life constantly presented him with the unexpected. So it was without fanfare that a neighbor introduced him to a lovely woman named Susan. Although he had no intentions of pursuing her, their conversations revealed that they shared remarkably similar life experiences. Like Dr. Stern, Susan was a widow by cancer, and also the single parent of a boy and girl. Dr. Stern and Susan were able to develop a unique bond and mutual understanding of each other quickly fell in love. This beginning of a new chapter in Dr. Stern’s life allowed him to re-evaluate what brought him joy. Yet while Susan changed his life for the better, Dr. Stern’s disdain for his work in Rhode Island remained.

On a particularly bad day, Dr. Stern received a call from an old friend, Dr. Robert Green, asking if he would be interested in coming to work at Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Stern jumped at the opportunity and was soon working with Dr. Green, running the Clinical Core of the NIH-funded BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center (BU ADC).

After giving a talk in Boston about Alzheimer’s disease one evening in 2007, Dr. Stern was introduced to former Harvard football player and WWE professional wrestler, Christopher Nowinski (now Dr. Nowinski), and jokingly explains that the two “kind of fell in love.”

At the time, although Dr. Stern had seen a couple of patients with dementia pugilistica (“punch-drunk” syndrome), he had not heard of the term CTE,. Dr. Nowinski had just formed the non-profit, Sports Legacy Institute (SLI, now Concussion Legacy Foundation) with world-renown concussion specialist and neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Cantu. They were looking for a research institution to partner with and, as Dr. Stern was intrigued by what the study of CTE could do for advancing knowledge  about other neurodegenerative diseases and the potential impact on public health, they continued discussion about some form of affiliation. When Drs. Nowinski and Cantu asked if Dr. Stern knew of a neuropathologist who may be interested in studying the brains of deceased football players, Dr. Stern replied that he worked with a superb and highly respected neuropathologist at the BU ADC but he wasn’t sure if she would have that interest. Little did he know that, at the time, Dr. Ann McKee was a huge football fan and was also an expert in diseases involving tau protein, the same protein at the root of CTE. Dr. Stern called Dr. McKee and asked if she was interested. Dr. McKee was eager to join, and in the following months, Drs. Cantu, McKee, Nowinski, and Stern, with the support of Dean Karen Antman and others at the MED campus, founded the BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, through a formal affiliation between SLI and BU.  As they say, the rest is history, with Drs. Stern and McKee becoming pioneers in the field of CTE research, increasing public awareness and forging major medical and scientific advances.

Dr. Stern is the lead principal investigator of a $16 million multi-center NIH grant (that was supposed to be funded originally by the NFL, but he doesn’t like to talk about that), has many other ongoing projects, is the director of clinical research for the BU ADC and BU CTE Center, has published hundreds articles, as well as two recent books . He particularly enjoys the dynamic nature of the Neurology Department at BUSM. Following his own advice, Dr. Stern has surrounded himself with nice people who make up his passionate, brilliant, and hard-working research team.

They are all “wicked smaht people,” Dr. Stern says jokingly in a fake Bostonian accent.

The approximately 15-member team works with Dr. Stern to conduct clinical research projects on AD and CTE within the department.

Although getting a grant funded or having a major paper accepted for publication is exciting, “if someone is really going to be a successful researcher, they have to enjoy the journey all along the way,” says Dr. Stern.

He explains that research is all about trying to answer a question — and when the analysis comes back and supports the initial hypothesis, it is thrilling.

“When a paper gets published, even now, so many years into my career, I still get a little rush getting to see the paper with my name on it,” he adds.

Yet while he enjoys publishing his work, Dr. Stern does not forget to note the real drive behind his projects: “The most important part of it all are the people who I get to interact, the research participants, patients, and their loved ones. That also is what keeps me driving.”

Reflecting on his experiences, Dr. Stern urges current students to be open to new ideas and strive to create change in the world.

“If something is broken, fix it. And if there is a need for something and it doesn’t exist, make it,” said Dr. Stern. “Whenever I meet with anyone who has a can-do spirit, someone who says, ‘yeah, let’s do that,’ that is the most powerful type of person that I want to be around.”

For students pursuing research experience, Dr. Stern recommends reaching out to a lab and offering to help with anything.

“It really just starts with saying, ‘Hey, I’ll do anything,’ that’s really it,” he said. “If you can open the door by offering to do anything and then you prove yourself by being a nice person, a smart person, a hard-working person, then usually that turns into being able to move forward within a lab and to be offered more and more responsibilities,” said Dr. Stern.

Dr. Stern advises students to take time off after their undergraduate studies before applying to graduate or medical school.

“College is an amazing time and possibly not the time to make a final decision about what you want to do for the rest of your life,” said Dr. Stern.

He recommends spending at least two years in this capacity, permitting time to mature and gain valuable experience. He says it is really important to follow your gut and not feel stuck in one direction or another, while always doing something that excites you. His twists of fate enabled him to find his true passions and dedicate such a large part of his life to scientific innovation. Dr. Stern’s intricate career path exemplifies the advice he gives to current students:

“Realize that nothing is ever a finite decision.”

Despite his prominent role in academia, Dr. Stern puts in the effort to maintain a balance between his personal life and professional career.

“Make sure every day is filled with joy,” said Dr. Stern.

His own primary source of joy comes from spending time with his wife and four kids, along with their little cockapoo, Rosie. Boston also supplies Dr. Stern with positive energy: he relishes the diverse atmosphere, and as a self-proclaimed avid spinner, he cherishes the abundance of spin classes available. As for what the future holds, Dr. Stern looks forward to passing along his projects to his talented junior faculty and hopefully witnessing their developments lead to advances in neuroscience and to the benefit of public health.

Writers: Yoana Grigorova, Enzo Plaitano, Nicole Tacugue

Editors: Stephanie Gonzalez, Brian Privett

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