Department of Biological Sciences
College of Arts and Sciences
What are your research objectives and interests?
I am a neuroendocrinologist, which is a big word that simply means I study how hormones affect the brain and vice versa. My laboratory's current interests are twofold. First, we aim to understand neuroendocrine modulation of food intake in light of the ecological and evolutionary forces that guide optimal foraging strategies. Second, we aim to understand how emotionally charged visual images cause anxiety, fear and stress in people. In the past we have studied the mechanism of opioid receptor action in the brain as well as the role of environmental contaminants in disrupting the endocrine systems of humans and wildlife.
How do you feel your research impacts the globe?
Scientists must understand the basic principles of body function before we can apply that knowledge to develop new therapies, instruments, procedures, etc. Most of my work falls into the area of basic research that is studying important fundamental principles of neuroendocrine function. Hopefully this research will allow us to understand mechanisms other than appetite that influence food intake, specifically the visual recognition of food. Also understanding how our brain and visual system proves key features of emotionally laden images is important because we are exposed to the images endlessly through TV news and social media posts. This work will lead to better ways for mitigating the fear, anxiety and stress associated with negative image exposure related to disasters, terrorism, etc. This work may also help political leaders understand how best to alleviate stress in their constituents through subtle cues in their behavior.
What types of service projects have you been involved with?
I've been involved in just about every type of service one can think of in my time at TTU. Right now one of my principal service obligations is serving as a faculty director of the Joint Admission Medical Program. This is a pipeline program to medical school that assist financially disadvantaged students. I am in charge of recruiting excellent students, helping them apply and mentoring these students as they progress through their medical school prerequisites and the MCAT test, and mentoring them through the medical school application process.
I currently chair our tenure and promotion committee and am heavily invested in mentoring junior faculty. Other professional service includes work on editorial boards, journal manuscript reviews and grant proposal reviews.
What are you currently working on?
We are currently studying how important satiety peptides interfere with the multisensory pathway required for food acquisition. We also have two projects involving human participants, one on the role of visual threats and attention to food images and one on the physiological response of humans to visually evocative images related to natural disasters, terrorist incidents and how leaders' nonverbal cues can mitigate these physiological responses. Part of this work involves identifying a suite of biomarkers that we can measure in human saliva to detect stress, anxiety and fear and discrimination between exposure to different types of stressors in humans.
Where do you find your inspiration?
The inspiration for most of my projects comes from the incomprehensible diversity of animal life and the neuroendocrine strategies animals have evolved to cope with stressors and visual threats. Understanding how to treat anxiety and fear will ultimately require an understanding of how these conditions evolved in the first place. Observing animals in ecologically relevant settings always provides novel ideas for understanding how humans respond to threats and how we subconsciously trigger these fear pathways when no threat is present, which is the basis of anxiety and related disorders such as PTSD and depression.
What advice do you have for new faculty members about balancing the components of Integrated Scholarship—teaching, research, and service—in their careers?
Other than working 80 hours per week my philosophy is to not get involved in too much service in the first few years until the research is funded and the laboratory is established. In this challenging funding climate faculty must work harder and harder to garner research funding, and that's especially difficult to do with heavy service loads. Writing five –to-10 grant proposals a year is not unusual in my field. Once the research is established and running more or less on its own then it's time to enter into more service commitments.
For active researchers teaching is a pleasure because we continually bring new discoveries into our teaching approach. Of course that's the basis for the academic researcher role that plays such an important role in higher education in the U.S. However, it can be challenging to balance teaching and research for junior faculty, since many incoming Ph.D.s don't have much teaching experience as the Ph.D. is a research degree in many fields. Fortunately, we have a strong mentoring program in our college and department and junior faculty need to make use of this collective mentoring experience to identify ways to spend their time efficiently. I also recommend that junior faculty network nationally and internationally so that their work becomes known. This can be done by organizing meetings, symposia and becoming an officer in relevant societies related to their field of interest. This is critically important during the tenure and promotion probationary period as letters of recommendation will be required for any tenure and promotion dossier.
More about James Carr
I graduated with my BS from Cook College, Rutgers University and earned my M.A. and Ph.D. in zoology from the Department of Environmental, Population, and Organismal Biology at the University of Colorado. I then was awarded an NIH National Research Service Award to fund a postdoctoral traineeship in the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience at the Medical School of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. I was hired as an assistant professor in biological sciences at TTU in 1991.