Celebrating Excellence in Mentorship


Dear Friends,

We are thrilled to share that CNLM Director Professor Michael Yassa was recently awarded the University of California, Irvine Academic Senate Distinguished Faculty Award for Mentorship. This prestigious accolade recognizes Professor Yassa’s exceptional dedication to guiding and inspiring others in their academic and professional pursuits.

In accepting this award, Professor Yassa reflected on the profound impact mentorship has had on his own journey. He shared his gratitude for the mentors who supported him, acknowledging their invaluable role in shaping his career.

“My passion for mentoring comes from recognizing the profound impact it can have on shaping lives. As I receive this distinguished honor, I reflect on the legacy of those who shaped me—giants whose shoulders I proudly stand upon, eager to extend a hand to those who follow.

My scientific journey can be characterized as a jagged, meandering, nontraditional path, immensely shaped by the impact of mentorship. Growing up, I did not give much thought to being a scientist. I knew I wanted to help people somehow, but that only meant one thing for my family and my community. I needed to become a doctor so I could take care of sick patients and make them better. I went to college at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and quickly realized that I had massively underestimated the magnitude of the transition from high school. After a rocky first year and failing two classes, I found myself on academic probation. Two professors threw me a lifeline, offering a chance to retake their courses, salvaging my all-important premed GPA. They continued to mentor and support me throughout my degree and beyond.

Dabbling in biomedical research for pragmatic reasons (I needed the money) and the allure of a med school application boost, I stumbled upon neuroscience even before the birth of the neuroscience major at my institution. I was captivated by the mysteries of the brain and how little we knew about it. I devoured neuroscience classes, one after the other, attempting to learn everything I could about this magical three pounds of jelly that sits in our skull. I reached out to any faculty willing to lend an ear. Several took an interest in me and helped me find my path. Those mentors I held near and dear to my heart for a long time. Some have passed away since, and some are still connected with me to this day. I am privileged that I was able to work alongside some of them as colleagues when I joined the Hopkins faculty early in my career.

I vividly recall as an undergraduate sitting down with one of the field’s luminaries, the late Vernon Mountcastle, to pick his brain about the future of brain science. He convinced me that neuroimaging offered a window into the functioning brain that no other technology at the time could offer. I held off on med school applications and accepted a full-time position in the Division of Psychiatric Neuroimaging at Hopkins after graduation. There, I learned from some of the top people in the field about psychiatric illness and how using brain imaging can help us identify and understand brain pathologies that can be targeted with treatment.

After three years, I hit a wall. I was doing interesting work, but I had so many of my own questions to ask and no way to answer them without leading the science myself. I needed to find a path to independence, a path to intellectual freedom. My undergraduate mentor met with me and convinced me to pursue a Ph.D. My graduate mentor, Craig Stark, not only supported my work but kept me on the path to completion despite many trials and tribulations and my repeated attempts to drop out of the program. He saw something in me that I did not see in myself at that time. His sponsorship and support over the years allowed me not only to launch my career at Johns Hopkins but to also transition it successfully to UC Irvine in 2014 to be his colleague in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.

Over the last fourteen years since I began my independent research career, I have had no shortage of mentors around the world. They have written letters on my behalf, nominated me for awards, invited me to speak at their institutions, co-mentored my students and recruited them for post-Ph.D. positions, and helped me achieve more than I could have imagined at this stage in my career. If it were not for the impact of mentorship on my life, I may have pursued a very different path. I probably would have become a physician. Thankfully, I didn’t, and as a result, many more patients are alive today.”

Throughout his career, Professor Yassa has been a beacon of mentorship excellence. His leadership of a federally funded predoctoral training program, long standing service in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior faculty mentoring committee, and work in the field as a member of the AAAS Committee for Opportunities in Science exemplify his commitment to nurturing the next generation of scientists. 

At the CNLM, mentorship is not just a value but a guiding principle, embodied by Professor Yassa’s exemplary leadership. We take immense pride in his achievements and the positive impact he continues to make on our scientific community. 

Please join us in congratulating Professor Yassa on this honor!

The CNLM Team

CNLM Director Professor Michael Yassa with CNLM Director of Outreach and Education Manuella Oliveira Yassa, UCI Provost Hal Stern and Chair of the UCI Academic Senate, Arvind Rajaraman.