BJ Casey grew up on a small farm in North Carolina where “everything was an experiment.” From what fertilizer and what seed to use, Casey found it fascinating that every planting was its own experiment, in different circumstances and with different plants requiring different nutrients and soil types. Now the head of the Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain (FAB) Lab in the Department of Psychology at Yale, she sees every individual as similarly unique, requiring personalized analysis and nurturing.
Casey’s family farm was in the outskirts of a small town in North Carolina. Going into town for church on Sundays, she decided to work with in a church sponsored special needs class in place of attending long sermons. She remembers one particular little girl in the special needs class during who, while pasting together two halves of a tree, pasted the two halves so that the middle of the tree was on the outside and the branches were on the inside. Wondering why, Casey began to wonder why any of us do what we do. She wanted to understand what was going on in the brain in these children and how it affected their viewing of the world.
Lacking advanced course opportunities in high school, Casey started college at sixteen and loved her psychology courses most. She learned early on that, contrary to what a lot of theories suggest, our personalities aren’t entirely formed in early life–we’re always changing, and this idea continues to guide her approach to life. “You can still teach an old dog like me new tricks,” she said.
She didn’t initially plan to be a professor or even to go to graduate school. After getting her undergraduate degree, she went to Europe for six weeks on her own. This was the first time she had flown or been on a train to anywhere. Looking back, she said she probably learned more from that experience about people and the world than she had from any of her formal education. When she returned home, however, she missed the academic atmosphere she had experienced at university, so she soon returned to an academic setting, attending “Happy Appy” or Appalachian State University for her Master’s.
After completing her Master’s, she got a job as an assistant to the vice chancellor of research at the University of South Carolina–Aiken to stay in a learning environment. “I just wanted to be wherever I felt there was new information and knowledge, and then I realized I couldn’t really do a whole lot without a PhD.” So she went onto complete her doctorate at the University of South Carolina.
Like everyone, she had some traumatic early research experiences in grad school. After performing surgery on a rabbit one Friday in preparation for a single cell recording study, which required drilling into the skull and inserting a plug, she went to a petting zoo that weekend with her nieces. Upon returning to the lab on Monday with excitement to see her rabbit and to begin her data collection, she found that her rabbit was missing. When she asked her colleagues where her rabbit was, they told her that the plug had not taken and they had given the rabbit to the zoo. She responded that she had just been there and was confused since surely the kids would notice the hole in the rabbit’s head. They laughed, telling her that the rabbit was not for viewing or petting, but for feeding the snakes. That was the last time she performed animal research.
After graduate school, she completed a postdoc at the National Institute of Mental Health in 1990s during the emergence of functional MRI scans, the first noninvasive method for imaging the behaving developing brain in vivo.
Soon as a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh, she received one of the first ever grants to look at healthy development of the brain with functional imaging, setting the stage for her to later spearhead pediatric imaging at the Weill Medical School of Cornell, and ultimately become the director of the Sackler Institute there for over twelve years.
After making many discoveries about the unique and complex behavior of the adolescent brain, she accumulated vast preclinical data on ways to potentially optimize treatments for young people with mental health problems She felt she was not making much headway in translating her work into psychiatric practice, but that her work on the teen brain was being cited in amicus briefs and impacting the law and policy. During this time, new supreme court decisions regarding the treatment and sentencing of juveniles were plentiful. Her work informed decisions to abolish the death penalty and mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders. With one of the top ranked law schools and psychology departments at Yale, Casey moved here in 2016 and is now a member of the Justice Collaboratory, where philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists and lawyers come together to inform and reform laws and policies. She hopes that her research will continue to make a difference in the lives of young people, especially those who come into contact with the law.