Courtesy of Jessica Burris
From wanting to be an entomologist in elementary, to a biologist in first grade, to wanting to go into medicine in college, Psychology Professor Jessica Burris always wanted to be a scientist even at a young age.
“I always knew, like even in my first-grade class when it was time to do the little surveys,” Burris said. “I always knew I wanted to be doing something scientific.”
She was always one to help a student in need with her tutoring through high school and college.
Her science interests in college first began with medicine, taking a pre-med track after transferring from Cosumnes River College to UC Davis where she earned her Ph.D. in 2017.
After getting interested in psychology, Burris thought about going into psychiatry and finishing medical school, but she secured a position in a research lab at Davis as an undergrad research assistant, saying goodbye to medicine.
Burris said that the most enjoyable courses she took were all her psychology classes and her infant development classes.
“I was so interested that I actually went to class when I normally didn’t,” Burris said.
That change introduced her to her new path: pursuing her Ph.D. and learning different psychological concepts as well as learning about research methods.
Burris said that even though she has changed gears and moved away from the medical field, it is still in her and her “approach to psychology is very biological” with a neuroscience framework.
Her knowledge recently shifted to teaching instead. After she earned her Ph.D., she continued her research by taking a position at Rutgers University in New Jersey from the summer of 2017 to the early stages of the pandemic, moving away from her home in California with her husband.
Once the pandemic reached a peak, Burris and her husband quickly moved back to California, causing her to work remotely.
Burris conducted research for 15 years at both UC Davis and Rutgers University looking at attention to emotion and how it relates to anxiety for developing children and infants as well as people who are diverging in their development.
At UC Davis, she worked with children with fragile X syndrome, which is a genetic disorder, and looked at how their brains processed emotions and the relation to high social anxiety seen in their disorder as well as children on the spectrum of autism.
At Rutgers, she studied children who grew up in extreme poverty to see how attention to emotion relates to anxiety risk and young kids. She studied how different environmental factors like poverty or genetic disorders influence the patterns seen in attention to emotion and anxiety development.
Burris said her greatest accomplishment would be having her daughter, but work-wise, she said that it would be her doctorate or the federal grant that she was granted to fund her research.
She said that her other accomplishment was getting to the end of the research road and realizing that it was time to teach because it led her back to CRC at age 34 as an alumnus and going from a former student to a newly-hired psychology professor this year.
Her students say that she’s a great teacher and they were glad to have her as their professor.
One of her students, 20-year-old psychology major Abrar Adib, said she was awesome, had a comfortable vibe and was understanding.
“During our midterm, most of the class read the time wrong for the window in which to complete the midterm,” Adib said. “So professor Burris gave us an opportunity to complete it.”
Janet Cariaso, 21, a psychology major, said that Burris is nice, friendly, laid back, approachable and smart.
“I love her lifting attitude every single day,” Cariaso said. “No matter what day it is, she seems to have a smile on her face every single time. I was able to learn a lot from her and I really love how flexible and forgiving she is.”
Kaitlyn Wassermann, a 20-year-old psychology major, said that Burris was organized and really connected with her students.
Wassermann said that she was constantly making sure that her students stay on top of assignments or other announcements. She also made sure that her students understood the coursework and offered extra help when needed.
Throughout her college experience, Burris said she faced her biggest challenge. Growing up, she lived a privileged lifestyle with her parents helping her with everything she needed, but when she got to college, she decided that she wanted to pay for her own college and work for her education.
She was a full-time student juggling a full-time job at a restaurant five days a week. Burris worked at the restaurant for 20 years trying to earn enough money for college as well as her rent. She was committed to trying to do this independently, but at the end of the day, her parents were there when she needed them to be.
She said that because she worked through college, it was a better way to connect with students through that experience.
“It’s like, I get you, like I was there,” Burris said. “I understand kind of that world and so many like people in their emerging adulthood filter in and out of that restaurant or service industry.”
Burris said her biggest influence was her sister. Her sister is six years older than her and attended CRC to become a biologist.
Her sister showed her that it is okay to take the slow route and you do not need to have a “completely straight path,” Burris said.
Her sister puts her interests into her work.
“To be able to say she really loves her job, and it doesn’t feel like work,” Burris said. “That’s something that really resonates with me because I have worked so hard for so long, that it’s nice to be reminded that you can love what you do and she does.”
Someone who influenced Burris recently was her postdoc advisor who was her mentor and someone who Burris could look up to.
“She’s incredible,” Burris said. “Like as a female researcher, as a female scientist and as a female professional. Like she has done so much for me.”