Mind and matter

Jocelyn Ricard investigates the impact of inequity on the brain and points out systemic issues.
June 12, 2023

To say Jocelyn Ricard (B.S. Neuroscience, ’20) made the most of her undergraduate years is an understatement. She did research in four faculty labs, studied abroad six times, and served as a peer mentor for the North Star STEM Alliance and a hospice volunteer, among other pursuits. In the years since, she has kept up the pace.

After graduating, Ricard took up a post as a computational neuroscience research assistant at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Berlin. For the past two years, she has worked as a post-baccalaureate research assistant in neuroscience at Yale University. This fall, Ricard was lead author of a paper in Nature Neuroscience that explores the impact of racially exclusionary practices on neuroimaging data.

Ricard was recently awarded a prestigious Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship and will begin graduate school at Stanford University this fall. She hopes to eventually run her own academic research lab. Bringing a social justice lens to her work is a priority. That means considering the impact of inequity on the brain in her research, addressing issues of systemic racism and bias in her field, and centering diversity and inclusion in her future lab. Ricard shared a bit about her plans, the direction of her research, and insights from her recent paper.

Q. What sparked an interest in this particular area of research?

Through my research, coursework at the University of Minnesota and lived experiences, I have always found it important to take a holistic approach to studying the brain. Specifically, I became interested in understanding how individuals’ environment and experiences with inequity impact the brain. This was especially important to me given that marginalized populations have been historically excluded at different levels of the research process. I have explored the brain from a comprehensive and interdisciplinary perspective — one that uses cellular culture, animal models, post-mortem brain tissue, human neuroimaging, and computational approaches. These experiences ultimately motivated me to study the complex and interdisciplinary effects of substance use disorders on the brain and how societal inequities impact these neural correlates during my graduate education.

Q. What are you hoping to do once you complete your Ph.D.?

I plan to establish a lab in an academic setting that continues examining the way in which substance use disorders and environmental inequity comorbidly impact brain function and structure. Additionally, I look forward to continuing to mentor and train the next generation of science leaders as I progress in my career, and I plan to create an environment where diverse experiences and backgrounds are celebrated. My career goals center around understanding and dismantling systemic problems on a large scale through the field of neuroscience. My ideal career would involve a faculty position where I train future students conducting research in collaboration with communities focused on understanding the comorbidity of our environmental disadvantages and psychiatric illness.

Q. Your recent paper in Nature Neuroscience considers the impact of racially exclusionary practices on neuroimaging data. What was the impetus for this work?

My first introduction to neuroimaging began at the University of Minnesota, where I was working with functional near-infrared spectroscopy. It became clear that the imaging technology was difficult to optimize in darker skin and coarser hair. However, when I got to working with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) a few years later, I realized that several exclusionary practices still existed in this realm. For example, typical Black hairstyles such as sew-ins or braids may have metallic decorative elements woven into them. In the magnetic field of the MRI-scanner environment, this can pose a risk to the participant and render unusable data. This ultimately inspired us to write the paper to bring to light the inherent exclusionary practices that exist in our scientific process within neuroimaging and encourage researchers to make actionable changes.

Q. Your paper raises a number of issues about how data are collected and used. What are some emerging approaches to addressing racism and bias?

In earlier work, my colleague, Dr. Termara Parker, and I put out a call to action in Lancet Psychiatry urging imaging researchers to address the inherent structural racism that exists within our neuroimaging modalities. Researchers in the field have started to tackle this issue by designing methods for obtaining high-quality EEG readings from individuals with coarse and curly hair, to address this systemic collection bias in EEG studies, to optimize flush contact with the scalp and the electrode. Additionally, in the longer term, the FDA has recently put out calls to diversify the racial and ethnic participants in our clinical trials and develop novel technology to image the human brain, and scientists are in a unique position to address these concerns and unanswered questions. While there is significant progress to be made, I am excited about the steps scientists are taking toward conducting more equitable neuroscience.

—Stephanie Xenos