By Emma Spring
In the realm of academia, there are those rare mentors who do more than merely transmit facts; they breathe life into their chosen fields, making it not just a field of study but a passionate journey. Briana Mezuk, affectionately known as “Bri” by the ATLAS team, stands as an exemplar, perhaps to a self-destructive degree. In just a short interview, Mezuk’s passion for complex topics shines through as she frequently embarks on spirited rants, eyes lit, weaving together arguments with animated gesture, inviting us to understand the profound interplay between the personal and the scholarly, the human and the academic, and how these intricacies shape the very heart of her pursuit.
Growing up in a constantly shifting landscape due to her father’s work in manufacturing contact lenses, Mezuk’s transient childhood meant constant relocation and exposure to diversity. The transient period in her childhood led her to aspire to become a lawyer because, at an elementary age, she innocently believed she could fight against the uncertainties of constant change by suing people. Mezuk, of course, would eventually venture into the world of the brain, a field defined by uncertainty and fluctuation, yet the allure of law has never truly left Mezuk’s heart. Her interest in law launched her involvement on the debate team in high school. The analytical skills, intellectual discourse, and the thrill of presenting compelling arguments, continue to shape her career, albeit in a different context.
“To this day, I use debate every day of my life. What I like about science and debate is logic, developing arguments and presenting,” said Mezuk. “I get to do all the things that I imagine would be fun as a lawyer. I get to talk to people, I get to think creatively, I get to have intellectual and verbal jousting about different things.”
Mezuk attended the University of Pittsburgh as a first-generation college student, which had its own set of struggles.
“I’m a first generation college student. I was not instilled to ask questions. I just kind of try to figure things out on my own. That’s slightly easier to do today because of the internet. [When I was pursuing education], the Internet was in its infancy, there was no Google when I was trying to make these decisions.”
Much akin to her own impact as a mentor today on her team, Mezuk resolved to major in neuroscience, get a PhD, and get it in Public Health using solely her own mentors’ careers as inspiration.
“The best teacher I’ve ever had in my life, Ed Stryker, taught my intro to neuroscience course. I literally was like, ‘well as Stryker has a PhD, I want to be like Stryker, I guess I have to go get a PhD,’” said Mezuk. “[Abby Lippman] was in the department of epidemiology. There’s one school that had a department of focus on mental health of all of the schools of public health in the United States and that was at Johns Hopkins, so I applied to one program in public health, and that was at the Ph.D. program in the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins. That was the amount of thinking that went into it.”
Mezuk hated graduate school.
“I [was] memorizing and regurgitating. That’s not why I went to grad school, I went to grad school to think about hard problems,” Mezuk said. “I’m getting ready to leave; I’m sick of it, so I’m going to meet with my advisor. In this meeting, he asked me to take a year long leave of absence from grad school to run this large cohort study that I had been working on as an RA. He’s like, ‘What did you want to tell me?’ I was like, ‘nevermind, I forget.’ I wouldn’t be here without it.”
Mezuk from then on was geared toward understanding processes of psychiatric illnesses with diverse interests, reflecting her refusal to confine herself to a single niche. Her unquenchable curiosity shines as she explains her research in genetic markers, schizophrenia, autism, aging, depression, diabetes, frailty, suicide, and now a passion for the placebo effect. After an absence from work due to her cancer diagnosis several years ago that made her drop everything, Mezuk now finds herself taking a sabbatical in Italy to recover from her insatiable dedication to work.
“When I got sick, I dropped everything. That was an incredible gift because prior to getting sick, I would think about work almost every minute of every day. [Cancer] literally gave me the clarity that I had been seeking through every other means possible,” Mezuk said. “I almost died. When I didn’t die, I was like, what do I want to do before I die? I’ve never lived in a foreign country. I’m gonna do it.”
Mezuk’s battle with cancer offered her a clarity she had long sought, forcing her to reevaluate her priorities. Emerging from that experience with a profound sense of mortality, Mezuk gained an understanding that fundamentally reshaped her approach to work and life.
“When I came back to work [after cancer treatment], I wanted to come back in a way that did not reconstitute the perverse mental attachment I had before” Mezuk said. “It’s kind of started creeping back a little bit. I was like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna work those muscles I had before in terms of having a very healthy emotional distance from work. I give everything I can to work, or sorry, I’m not gonna give it everything I can. I will give it everything I should.”