Enlisted Army National Guardsman Earns Ph.D. in Neuroscience to Study Brain Diseases, TBI

U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Gabriel Gonzales, a recent Ph.D. graduate from USU, shares his inspiring journey of overcoming challenges in neuroscience research, driven by personal and professional passions.

U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Gabriel Gonzales in the lab. (Photo courtesy of 1st Sgt. Gabriel Gonzales)
U.S. Army 1st Sgt. (Dr.) Gabriel Gonzales, a recent USU Ph.D. graduate, in the lab. (Photo courtesy of 1st Sgt.
Gabriel Gonzales)

June 4, 2024 by Vivian Mason

“I’ve always had a real fascination with the brain,” says U.S. Army 1st Sgt. (Dr.) Gabriel Gonzales, research associate and a recent Ph.D. graduate of the Neuroscience program at the Uniformed Services University (USU). “I have a history of Alzheimer’s in my family and that, too, spurred me toward studying this complex and fascinating organ.”

U.S. Army 1st Sgt. (Dr.) Gabriel Gonzales (Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)
U.S. Army 1st Sgt. (Dr.) Gabriel Gonzales
(Photo credit: Tom Balfour, USU)
Throughout his more than 21-year military career, Gonzales has witnessed service members dealing with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

“I want my research to make a difference and play a crucial role in the betterment of peoples’ lives, especially the men and women in uniform,” says Gonzales.

Gonzales began his graduate education at USU in 2017 and, in early 2019, joined Dr. Frank Shewmaker’s lab to study misfolded proteins (or prions) in neurodegenerative disease and TBI. His work focused on the prion-like characteristics of the protein fused in sarcoma (FUS) related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

In 2021, when Dr. Shewmaker left, Gonzales transitioned to Dr. Dara Dickstein’s lab, concentrating on neurodegeneration related to TBI. “I’m interested in what occurs in the synapses of the hippocampal CA1 following TBI and pharmaceutical intervention,” Gonzales explains. This region, critical for learning and memory, is essential for understanding TBI-related dysfunction.

Reflecting on his journey, Gonzales admits, “It seems like I never liked to do things the easy way.” After high school, he joined the military, married, and had a child, delaying his college dreams. Eventually, after a ten-year hiatus, he used the GI Bill to return to school while working full-time. 

Despite earning a B.S. in biology, Gonzales struggled to find a science career, so he worked in a call center and joined the Army National Guard (ANG), serving actively with the state’s Honor Guard team. He eventually found a job at the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) in Colorado, focusing on TBI-related clinical research. While at DVBIC, he learned of USU’s Neuroscience degree program, applied with no expectations, and was fortuitously accepted.

Gonzales acknowledges that graduate school is not for the faint of heart. “I’ve endured a lot of challenges and difficulties that affected my getting through the program,” he asserts. “Like most who seek an advanced degree, I had to navigate financial, familial, mental, and physical challenges. As if that wasn’t enough, I was pulled away from conducting my research by multiple COVID-related military activations through the ANG and endured periods where I wanted to quit every single day. However, I persevered, became mentally stronger, and learned from my mistakes. As much as possible, I tried to take care of my mental health and well-being.”

Gonzales credits the support from the Neuroscience program’s faculty, mentors, post-doctoral fellows, and staff for empowering him to feel capable and supported in his goal to make a difference. “Overall, my experience has been wonderful,” he says. “The USU culture and energy are unmatched. I’ve been so impressed with this program and the fact that they really care about the students. It’s such an interactive and collaborative community.”

In nearly seven years at USU, Gonzales balanced coursework and academic research with military life, which included working as a company First Sergeant and serving more than 1,000 days in active ANG status, much of that in support of Maryland’s COVID-19 response. 

Gonzales also worked at USU as a medical instructor and medical operations NCO, volunteered as a teaching assistant for the neurochemistry class, where he taught a class on prions, and mentored high school and undergraduate students. Gonzales participated in various poster and seminar presentations and remained an active family man, all while earning numerous honors, commendations, and awards.

Gonzales and USU School of Medicine Dean Eric Elster at Commencement 2024. (Photo credit: MC2 Brennen Easter, USN)
Gonzales and USU School of Medicine Dean Eric Elster at Commencement 2024. (Photo credit: MC2 Brennen
Easter, USN)

Contemplating what he enjoys about being a researcher, Gonzales confesses, “For people who love learning, research provides the opportunity to learn something new just about every day.” He enthusiastically adds, “It’s the little things. You can learn something interesting and pivotal to what you’re doing. The excitement of finding something new can make a difference when you get that kind of opportunity in your career path. Everything is a learning opportunity.”

Gonzales also emphasizes the importance of trying to view setbacks and challenges with a growth mindset, attributing his sense of drive to his upbringing, particularly the influence of his father. 

“As a full-fledged adult, military man, student, researcher, husband, and father, it’s sometimes difficult to evaluate my abilities and accept that I still have room to grow,” says Gonzales. “The biggest influence in my life has really been my dad. He put a lot of effort into me as a youngster and believed in my potential. He instilled in me a belief in my abilities and a determination to pursue more for myself. I just want to make him proud. And, of course, I couldn’t have made it this far without the love, encouragement, and support of my wife and kids.” 

He recently defended his thesis, "Hippocampal Synapses Following Closed-Head Injury and Treatment with Minocycline and N-acetylcysteine." Gonzales enjoyed the public defense, inviting family, friends, and students to attend virtually. “As scientists, we need to communicate well with the public to help raise awareness about what we are studying and the implications of our work,” he emphasizes. 

Now that he’s graduated with his Ph.D., Gonzales plans to continue working at the Department of Defense/USU Brain Tissue Repository under Dr. Daniel Perl and hopes to do a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Diego Iacono, focusing on neurodegenerative disease.

Ultimately, Gonzales aspires to be a principal investigator with his own lab, driven by the thrill of new discoveries and solving complex puzzles. “I love getting to do something new every single day,” he proclaims. “Not every profession gets that, but those of us in research often do.”

Gonzales acknowledges the importance of developing skills that translate across all lab environments, valuing patience and attention to detail. The field of research, he finds, is fabulously peppered with discoveries that still take his breath away.