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Standing well over six feet tall, with a hearty smile and disarming laugh, Kerry J. Ressler, MD, PhD, commands a room as he talks about his vision for advancing translational research to improve the health and well-being of patients, particularly in psychiatric care.
And when Ressler speaks, it is clear that his work is as much a part of him as his slight southern drawl. He’s clearly excited about what he does and—by the end of a conversation with him—so is everyone else.
“I’ve always been passionate about combining our understanding of neuroscience and biology with behavior,” said Ressler, who holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a medical degree from Harvard Medical School, and a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University.
Joining McLean Hospital as its chief scientific officer and chief of the Division of Depression and Anxiety Disorders in August 2015, Ressler is focused on building translational efforts across research and clinical work, which may have the best possibility of changing how we understand and develop new treatments and preventions for psychiatric disorders.
“I wanted to pursue both research and clinical work because they are equally fascinating but quite different. With neuroscience research relying on logical problem solving and psychiatry involving much more of the art of medicine, the combination of both allows one to see the direct impact on people’s lives,” he said.
What drew Ressler to McLean was the opportunity to be part of the “best clinical psychiatric program in the country, and probably the world, and its outstanding, cutting-edge research program,” he said.
The fact that McLean’s basic and clinical research takes place on the same campus as its treatment programs—unlike many other research operations—was another huge draw.
“I’ve spent my career doing translational research, from bench to bedside and back again. I see my charge at McLean as fostering further translation by helping the clinicians intersect with the basic scientists and vice versa,” said Ressler. “Coming here has offered me an opportunity to work at a place that has world-class science and clinical research programs and renowned experts in clinical disorders. With the goal of doing translational research and helping to move science to the clinic, there is no better place than McLean.”
As one of the country’s leading experts on the neurobiology of trauma, Ressler—who also directs the Neurobiology of Fear Laboratory—finds himself excited about the prospect of enhancing his work through joint ventures with his McLean and Harvard Medical School colleagues.
“The focus of my research is on how fear works and how we can improve the treatment and prevention of such disorders as PTSD, phobias, panic, and other anxiety disorders,” explained Ressler. “This is very synergetic with the work that is being conducted throughout McLean and—through partnerships with people like William Carlezon, PhD, Vadim Bolshakov, PhD, Diego A. Pizzagalli, PhD, and others—there is great potential for us to make enormous progress.”
Progress is something Ressler never loses sight of, whether in the lab or in his administrative roles. As the hospital’s inaugural chief of the Division of Depression and Anxiety Disorders, he is working to improve communication and collaboration across the division’s clinical and research operations.
“These are programs that are truly outstanding and all share similar goals and processes—yet they have historically existed on their own,” he said. “If we can better take advantage of combined resources, faculty expertise, and research infrastructure, we will accomplish great things together by introducing our aggregated knowledge into our clinical practices and research programs.”
Thanks to a gift from longtime McLean supporters, Ressler holds the James and Patricia Poitras Endowed Chair in Psychiatry.