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Air Force Veteran Studies Behavioral Neuroscience to Help Others Who Served

When Carmen De Jesus enrolled at NSU in 2012, she brought to the classroom her six years of experience in the U.S. Air Force including two tours of duty in Afghanistan and flight missions across the Middle East. She had lost friends killed in combat, and seen other veterans suffer the effects of brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.  

It was that life experience—rare among college freshmen—that influenced De Jesus to pursue studies at the College of Psychology where she is now a senior with a major in behavioral neuroscience.

“Seeing how many of my friends were coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, I felt a duty and responsibility to do something with my life to learn how to better treat our veterans and citizens. That’s essentially what led me toward psychology and eventually to behavioral neuroscience,” De Jesus said.

At NSU, De Jesus quickly found her focus. She sought opportunities to excel, conduct and present research, and work toward her goal of helping other veterans.

“I originally started out in psychology, but I always felt like the ‘why’ question to our behaviors was never really answered,” she said. “The way the brain functions absolutely fascinates me. There are so many aspects and so much diversity to our brains…and I wanted to know more.”

In 2013, De Jesus was selected for a summer research internship and worked under the direction of Robert Speth, Ph.D., professor at NSU’s College of Pharmacy. She later presented her work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  

Under the guidance of Jaime Tartar, Ph.D., associate professor and coordinator of psychology research at the college, De Jesus was one of four NSU students selected for the Scientific Fellowship Program by the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience (MPFI). She attended Sunposium 2015, a two-day conference featuring world-renowned scientists from the U.S. and Europe.

“Carmen is an extraordinary person and an absolute pleasure to work with. She has been through some pretty tough times but you would never know it by watching her go,” Tartar said. “She is always enthusiastic, extremely hardworking, and kind. She has become a natural mentor to the other students and has even scheduled flight deck socials for students and faculty in the major to informally chat. I have complete confidence that Carmen’s future is very bright.”  

While academic success seems like a natural fit for De Jesus, attending college was once a remote possibility for her.

“After high school, I went right to work,” said De Jesus, who lacked the resources to go to college. An uncle who was a military veteran encouraged her to enlist in the Air Force. Initially stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and later in Abilene, Texas, De Jesus was trained as an aircraft mechanic and deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. She flew on missions all over the Middle East, primarily to drop supplies to troops.

“It was a difficult time for me,” said De Jesus. “I lost friends [who died in combat]. The primary years that most people spend in college, I spent in the military. I grew so much. The experience taught me leadership, patience, perseverance, and standing up for myself.”

After leaving the military, “I knew I wanted to go to school.” She chose NSU because of its opportunity for student research and small class sizes. She credits her success at school to faculty mentors and a work ethic honed in the military.

“I love school. I love learning. I love learning about the brain,” said De Jesus, who plans to apply to a physician assistant program, pursue a specialty in neurology, and eventually work with veterans.

“I feel an obligation to give back to those who suffered and are still suffering,” she said. “I like being hands-on. I like to help people. And being fascinated with the brain, I’m intrigued by our bodies’ complexities.

“NSU has been a tremendous influence in my life,” De Jesus said. “When I left the military, I didn’t even imagine that I would be pursuing a career in clinical medicine. I never would have imagined that I would have done the research that I did, or that I would know as much as I do about neuroscience.

“This is a direct result of the passion and investment that my professors give to their students. They are invested in their students, and I am eternally grateful.”