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Brian Downer

Q&A with Brian Downer, PhD, from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.

downerMeet Brian.

"It is hard to put into words how much of a positive impact GSA has had on my career. I have benefited immensely from the opportunities to present research, to become involved with leadership, and to be mentored by renowned leaders in the field. I cannot imagine what my career would be like without the support of GSA."

Q: How long have you been a GSA member?
A: I became a member of GSA in 2010 when I was a first-year PhD student in gerontology at the University of Kentucky. I joined GSA so that I could be surrounded by others who share my passion for gerontology. I joined AGHE a few years later when I had the opportunity to be the chair of the AGHE student committee. This position opened many doors for me at GSA, and I have participated in other committees and leadership groups. I have also participated in the GSA Annual Meeting by presenting research and attending workshops.

Q: How has membership in GSA benefited you?
A: It is hard to put into words how much of a positive impact GSA has had on my career. I have benefited immensely from the opportunities to present research, to become involved with leadership, and to be mentored by renowned leaders in the field. I cannot imagine what my career would be like without the support of GSA.

Q: How did you get interested in the field of aging?
A: My interest in gerontology came from growing up with my grandparents in an intergenerational household. By my sophomore year of college, three of my grandparents had passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. This inspired me to pursue an academic career in gerontology studying Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. My family history of Alzheimer’s disease has always been a major influence in my research. My doctoral and post-doctoral research focused on identifying potentially modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment among high-risk older adult populations. This has included older adults with a genetic predisposition for dementia and older adults who are high-risk because of socioeconomic, health, and behavioral characteristics. My interests have expanded to include a focus on the healthcare utilization of older adults with dementia and cognitive impairment. I am especially interested in the quality and outcomes of post-acute care. I am excited to be involved in this area of research because it has the potential to directly benefit older adults living with dementia.

Q: Why is it important for other individuals to join GSA?
A: I think it is important for others to join GSA so that a wide range of scientific disciplines are represented and so that new perspectives are shared. I always enjoy talking with other gerontologists at the Annual Meeting because while we may both identify as gerontologists our research interests and scientific training can be dramatically different. My research interests include the epidemiology of dementia, Hispanic aging, and post-acute care. The GSA Annual Meeting is the only conference where I can present findings, attend sessions, and meet with collaborators for all areas of my research.

Q: What are your key responsibilities at your job?
A: I am an Assistant Professor in the Division of Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Texas Medical Branch. My primary responsibility is doing research, but I also enjoy teaching and mentoring students. One of the things I enjoy most about UTMB is the many opportunities to work one-on-one with doctoral students on research projects. I find this part of my job to be especially rewarding because it was not that long ago when I was a PhD student wanting to start a career in research.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience in gerontology and aging research?
A: Major career milestones will always stand out in my mind, such as my first publication, defending my dissertation, starting a faculty position, and my first research grant. However, my most memorable experiences have been when I am interacting with older adults. I analyze large data sets for my research, and I sometimes take for granted that each row of numbers represents a person. I do not have any memorable experiences of crunching numbers in a data set but I can easily recall experiences as a PhD student giving presentations as part of an intervention to older adults and talking with older adults who were completing a survey. A recent memorable experience came when I was giving a presentation to middle-aged and older Hispanics on common myths and misconceptions about Alzheimer’s disease. A woman shared with me her struggles of providing care to her mother who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and the frustrating process of going to several doctors before getting a diagnosis.

Q: Do you have any tips for emerging gerontologists?
A: My first tip is to pursue an area of gerontology that you are genuinely passionate about whether it is research, teaching, clinical practice, government, advocacy, or any other area. My second tip is to find mentors and advisors who truly care about helping you reach your career goals.

Q: Tell us a little about your most recent activities/accomplishments.
A: The Sealy Center on Aging and Division of Rehabilitation Sciences at UTMB has access to national Medicare data files. We have used these data files to conduct policy-relevant research on the post-acute care of older adults. Our research indicates that older adults with physical and cognitive limitations are at an increased risk of experiencing a rehospitalization that could be considered as potentially preventable within 30-days of discharge from a skilled nursing facility and home health care settings. We have also produced evidence that older adults with cognitive impairment have less improvement in self-care and mobility during a skilled nursing stay than older adults who are unimpaired.

Q: Have you had an important mentor in your career?
A: I am fortunate to have several important mentors, but two stand out because they are also members of GSA. The first is Dr. Faika Zanjani who was my mentor at the University of Kentucky. I credit Faika with giving me my start in research. She also supported my research interests even when my interests did not exactly align with her current projects. The second is Dr. Kyriakos Markides who has been my mentor since 2016. Kokos has been instrumental in my career. In addition to giving me countless opportunities to advance my career, he has shown me through his actions of how to treat others.

Want to ask Brian a question? Contact him on GSA Connect!

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