Jarod Vance, Wittenberg class of 2014, is all about making a difference as he pursues his Ph.D. and explores how aerobic exercise impacts cognition and brain health.
Currently a second-year Ph.D. student, Vance is working on several projects as a research assistant at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro (UNCG). Originally from Mount Vernon, Ohio, he graduated from Wittenberg with a degree in biology and earned his master’s in kinesiology from Miami University in Ohio a few years later.
“While working on my master’s thesis at Miami, I kept coming across the name Jennifer Etnier who was doing research on exercise and cognition,” said Vance, who was part of the Pre-Health Professionals Club and the cross-country team at Wittenberg. “I emailed her about my interest in being part of her lab for my Ph.D., and our first phone call went for over an hour discussing my past and my future goals in academia. From that point on I knew I wanted to be at UNCG working with her, and luckily I was accepted and funded to do my Ph.D. there.”
At UNCG, he is part of a team engaging in a five-year study to see how a year of exercise impacts cognition and brain health in adults with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as his own research on the relationship between mood state during exercise and how that influences cognition. He has also worked on several projects that are now published, including the effects of exercise on children’s short- and long-term memory and how fitness and physical activity levels influence cognition in Botswana adolescents relative to their HIV status.
“My dream since taking my first college course was to be a professor,” said Vance, who is also a teaching assistant in UNCG’s kinesiology department. “I want to give back to students and try to make an impact on people’s lives with my research. I worked for two years following my time at Wittenberg at a local hospital in my hometown in rehabilitation and wellness trying to build a stronger portfolio for graduate schools. In 2016, I got a call from Miami University telling me I had earned an assistantship to do my MS there. After that, I made my way to UNCG working my dream job as a researcher and teacher, and working for, in my opinion, the best advisor/mentor I could ever ask for. Without a shadow of a doubt, I have made my way to the career path I always dreamed of, and Wittenberg was a big part of me getting here.”
Once Vance finishes his Ph.D., he plans to work in academia as a professor, both engaging in his own independent research and teaching students, while educating the masses on how exercise is not only beneficial for physical health but also for cognitive and brain health. Being a runner has also provided him a better understanding of the benefits of exercising, leading him to hopefully help people live healthier, more independent lives along the way.
“I read a book in high school called Spark that was all about how exercising before going to class results in better grades for these high school students, and that made me curious,” he said. “Personally, as a runner, I always knew when I was training that I felt better overall with less stress and anxiety. I also believe I was more focused on my school work. Once I began working on my master’s thesis, I knew I wanted to look at how exercise influences cognition, so I began reading the literature. There was an enormous amount of information out there regarding exercise and cognition, but around all this information were gaps in the literature that weren’t always evident to an untrained eye like mine. I could see there was a lot more we could understand. I want to help people live higher quality lives as we age and better understand the ‘best’ types of exercise we should engage in. From there my interest led me to UNCG.”
As a teenager Vance said that he had “zero interest in school or his studies and got by with minimum effort.” However, he started to develop an interest in human anatomy and physiology and took it as a challenge to memorize bones and muscles while being able to explain how something in the body works in scientific terms. A high school class he took sparked what has become a lifelong love of science that he carried with him to Wittenberg, where he eventually combined two of his favorite things - science and exercise.
“At Wittenberg I had some of the best professors of my entire academic career,” Vance said. “I got to see how faculty like Dr. Cathy Pederson or Dr. Matthew Collier taught their classes, and I always tried to take what I liked from them so one day I could incorporate the great things they did into my own teaching. Just as much so, the rigor of some of the higher-level biology courses I took more than adequately prepared me for my MS and now Ph.D. When you take human anatomy and physiology I and II with Dr. Pederson, every other class after that feels less overwhelming. So many people made a tremendous impact on me during my time at Wittenberg. Many professors taught me valuable information that led me down my road to research. Equally important, many friends were there for me during the good and the bad that comes with life and are still part of my life to this day.
“Wittenberg was actually the third university I attended during my undergraduate years,” he added. “Both institutions I was at before Wittenberg just didn’t feel right to me, and I didn’t get a lot of enjoyment from being in college at the time. This all changed as soon as I got to Wittenberg. I made lifelong friends whose weddings I’ve been in, met professors who I still stay in contact with, and now have countless stories about all the fun we used to have on Witt Wednesday. I sincerely believe that Wittenberg was the perfect place for my college years and only wish I had made my way there sooner.”