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jerry yakel

Jerrel Yakel, PhD

My family comes from the La Jolla, Pauma, and Rincon reservations, and my tribes are the Luiseño and La Hoya. I grew up in an urban area of Ventura County in southern California called Camarillo. I am about 3/8 Native American, and what I know about Native American heritage came from my grandparents. The two things I remember most are going to pow wows when I was a kid, and going to the county fair to make and sell fry bread.
I did well in school, and I had a good life growing up. I remember that I was always interested in biology, especially marine biology. Later on I was fascinated by developmental biology– the idea that a single cell could become an entire organism fascinated me. There was one high school teacher, Mr. Smithback, who really ignited my passion in the field of biology. One requirement for his class was that we each had to gather about fifty bugs. Biology soon became my favorite subject. I saw Mr. Smithback years later when I had just gotten my Ph.D. from University of California, Los Angeles. I told him that he was the most significant person as far as getting me interested in science, and that made him very happy. That’s why I do what I do today. It wasn’t until college that I settled on neural biology, which is the study of how brain neurons (cells) work. I didn’t realize that I was going to be a neurobiologist until near graduation.
In my final year in college at Oregon State University, there was a professor named Phillip Brownell who taught animal physiology. I wanted to go to graduate school, but I had doubts at the time because I thought I wanted to get a job and start earning an income. Professor Brownell was teaching a graduate level neurobiology class that entailed reading significant research papers and discussing them. Normally everything was taught from a text book, but reading actual research papers was great. There was also a serious lab course where we recorded responses from nerve cells. My first electrical recording from a neural cell, from a sea slug (who are close to us in many ways), got me hooked on neurobiology. From that day on, I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school and that I wanted to study the brain.
Today I am a principal investigator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, that’s one of the several institutes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Washington, DC. The NIH is the largest biomedical research organization in the world. It is part of the US government and the US Department of Health and Human Services. We are one of the institutes which specializes in how the environment impacts health and human conditions. We do research to find out how to reduce the occurrence of diseases caused by problems in the environment. We also want to find out who is at risk for diseases, and if age or our genetics have anything to do with whether or not we get these diseases. In my lab, my research assistants and I want to see what possible effects the environment may have on nerve cells in the brain.
Most of the communication between nerve cells, like thinking in the brain, for example, is electrical activity, similar to an electrical current in a wire. Instead of electrons moving though, there are ”ions” which are charged molecules that exist in salt solutions. We study the properties that regulate this electrical activity, as the basis of all neuronal-muscle communication within the body. We have very sophisticated devices which help us measure electrical currents in cells. What is the regulator of these electrical currents? Some regulation goes on at the level of intracellular factors based on the metabolism of cells, and sometimes there are outside factors such as compounds released by other nerve cells, such as neurotransmitters or hormones which will effect the activity of the nerve cell. We study nerve cells which may be affected by the environment or by intracellular relationships.