Meet Dr. Jeffery B. Mason

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, Diversity Committee member Dr. Klementina Fon Tacer sat down with SSR member Dr. Jeffery B. Mason to discuss his career and the influence of his Native American heritage.

KFT. What is your current position and research project?

JM. I am currently an Associate Professor of Systemic Physiology in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Utah State University. My main role is conducting biomedical research and I also teach first-year veterinary students in Core Physiology courses. My research is focused on studying the physiological consequences of reproductive failure in females. We use both large-animal and rodent models to test our hypotheses and utilize surgical manipulation, gene and cell therapy, and ex vivo/in vitro cell, tissue, and organoid culture. In addition to research and teaching, I also spend significant time mentoring undergraduate, graduate, and veterinary students. I also host native students, most often from the USU Blanding campus every summer to do research in my lab. In addition to the research and professional skills the students learn, I also benefit greatly from the cultural knowledge these students share with me.

KFT. Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from, and how were you as a child?

JM. I am originally from rural northern California. Growing up, I spent most of my time outdoors, most commonly hiking through “Simon’s forest,” a small, dense plot of trees behind our house to the lake behind it, and spent much of my time fishing or exploring the lake and surrounding hills. Camping and backpacking were also common activities for our family. When I was in sixth or seventh grade, I also began hunting with my best friend’s older brothers. I continued to hike, hunt, and fish while I was growing up, and continue to enjoy these activities today.

KFT. What first attracted you to the world of science?

JM. I have been interested in biology for as long as I can remember. I loved animals but was more fascinated by the details of animal biology, particularly when it went wrong. In fourth grade, we hatched/raised chickens in the classroom and I was enamored with the process of embryo development. Later, as an adult, one of the teachers in a night school biology class reignited the fire inside me for biological processes and pushed me to pursue this passion.

KFT. Wonderful – who inspired you? Teachers, friends, siblings, parents? And how did you get to be in your current position?

JM. When I was ten years old, I suffered a significant head injury and subsequently developed epilepsy. This negatively influenced my academic success and I ‘barely’ graduated high school and went to work in construction for the next 17 years. I was still fascinated by biology and continued taking night school classes during this period. In 1995, I was severely injured in a construction accident and spent the following year in physical therapy but was unable to recover enough physical function to return to construction work. Because of all my night school credits, I was able to apply to college at UC Davis, where I completed my BS, MS, and PhD degrees. After graduation, I took a postdoctoral position at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine’s New Bolton Center, where I worked on a stem cell transplantation program and an NIH gene therapy project. I was offered a faculty position at Utah State and joined the faculty in the School of Veterinary Medicine in 2013.

KFT. This is a fascinating and humbling story of grit and perseverance. My deep respect! What are you most excited to do over the next year?

JM. I am still as fascinated with biology as I was in fourth grade. Originally, we were able to extend lifespan and health by manipulating reproductive function. In female mammals, health generally declines significantly at menopause or when the ovaries stop functioning. To separate the aging effects of just getting old from the effects of ovarian failure, we transplanted ovaries from young mice to old mice and restored the health of the old mice to that seen in young mice. There was an obvious connection between the health of the ovaries and the health of the mouse.

Over the last several years we have been narrowing down potential mechanisms for this phenomenon and are getting close to developing therapeutic options to improve health. Recently, in our experimental models, we have demonstrated that ovarian tissues produce ‘rejuvenating’ factors and that these factors are transported from the ovaries to distant tissues in lipid vesicles.

KFT. What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientistst?

JM. Many of my friends and family are surprised at what I’ve achieved academically. My father never made it to high school, making me not only a first-generation college student but a first-generation high school student as well. To me, it doesn’t feel like anything special, a logical progression of events based on passion and perseverance.

Everyone has a story, and no one ever promised that life was fair, but perseverance will separate you from the crowd and will open doors to opportunities not available to others. Pursuing something you’re passionate about will make it easier to persevere while struggling toward your goals.

KFT. Are there ways in which you think your heritage has affected your perspective or career trajectory?

JM. One way is from a biological–genetic perspective. My father (mix-blood Muscogee Creek) died six years ago from cardiovascular disease and the early onset of cardiovascular disease has a personal connection for me. The death rate for heart disease is 20 percent greater and for a stroke is 14 percent greater among American Indians. My father was not raised in a traditional Native culture, suggesting his condition was genetically influenced, something my children and I carry with us. My mother has also developed post-menopausal cardiovascular disease. Menopause increases the severity of many diseases, including epilepsy. Being an epileptic myself, I understand the devastation that can be caused by living with seizures and the commonly associated symptoms.

My father was abandoned at birth and only learned of his background as an adult from a few of his aunts (his mother had 13 siblings). He eventually was contacted by his father’s family in Oklahoma and spent time there learning what he could about his father’s background. Many of the values he embraced from this experience, including respect for the land and animals he shared with us (my siblings and myself) as children growing up, I cherish my close relationship with nature daily and I continue to share these values with my own children.

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