Can We Talk About Your Research? with Ryan Bird, PhD candidate in Cognitive and Behavioral Sciences
Can We Talk About Your Research? is a series of interviews highlighting College of Liberal Arts graduate students and their research. This week, Clarissa Beavers, a graduate assistant working in the College of Liberal Arts' Office of Communication and Marketing, interviews Ryan Bird, a PhD candidate in Cognitive and Behavioral Sciences.
Bird found his way to the Department of Psychological Sciences as a non-degree-seeking student who followed his intuition while networking and connecting with scholars in the discipline. Ryan and Clarissa explored his work and research with CBD and its impact on the brain. Check out the conversation.
Where are you from?
Can you tell me about your research?
A colleague and I published a paper together in Neuropsychopharmacology on brain structure changes related to the use of cannabis. I’ve been interested in cannabis research long before I got to Auburn and this past summer is when we got things rolling. I’m in the process of getting more Auburn students and community participants. We have a relationship with a company that tests coffee and cherry extracts, and they wanted actual MRI data on brain activity. Their sister company sells CBD products, and they had a product they wanted to test. It just so happened that the Farm Bill passed in 2018 allowing the legalized use of CBD. It’s still a grey area legally. As long as it’s THC free, it’s legal to sell CBD products. After the Farm Bill legislation, we were approved by Auburn IRB to do a randomized, control trial of CBD. I developed this idea for my dissertation project. I have a double-blind study used in medical settings, which is considered the gold standard for testing drugs. Half of the participants get the drug; half get the placebo. The idea is to have a set number of participants, and we put them through a set of experiments to see if there were any recognizable differences.
I’m looking forward to reading your research. So, for a novice researcher, first-time researcher, or graduate student, what would you suggest they focus on?
It's hard for me to give advice here because I’m not sure my experience is typical. I’m lucky in the sense that I have a lot of freedom in the research I get to pursue. I think the more common experience is that a new researcher/graduate student enters a research lab that has a strong, central theme and they end up aligning their research to fit the lab. So, that being said, I would suggest you recognize that when you’re choosing where to apply for graduate school. You want to pick a lab that does work you have a deep interest in or work that you can see yourself becoming passionate about. And try and get experience with all kinds of research, even if you don’t necessarily think you’re interested in it. I’ve found one of the best things I’ve done in my academic and professional career is find out what I don’t like doing–it helped me find out what I actually do like doing.
What motivates your research?
I’m aiming to get more involved with public policy, particularly drug reform and public education regarding drugs. One of the sections I teach in my behavioral neuroscience class is about the drugs most common to college students, and I focus on what the research says, and try to point out inconsistencies in what the law implies about those drugs in terms of legal scheduling, or the misinformation in the popular narratives about drugs in the media. If a student wants to find out how drugs actually work, the research is where you should begin. And I try to toe the line. I’m not trying to be pro-drug or anti-drug; I don’t want them to think I’m suggesting they go out and try these drugs. What I’m saying is, let’s be real about them and talk about the evidence. There are decades of research on cannabis, for example. I want people to understand why it was so stigmatized, and why it’s culturally changing now. It’s been okay for white people to use cannabis for the last 30-40 years, but it’s starting to become okay for everyone in the eyes of the culture at large. You see most Americans supporting legalization now, but the laws are lagging public opinion, and when you investigate why that’s the case, you start to see that it’s the impact of a long history of propaganda. Like people believing it kills brain cells, for example. There is absolutely no evidence it kills brain cells. Another thing I do in my class is ask my students what they've heard about certain drugs, and then say, ‘Okay, let’s look at the research and see if that’s true.’ Try and get them to think about drugs in terms of what the data shows.
I’m passionate about drug reform, and I think that starts with education and taking an honest look at the history of drugs in our country. For example, in my own personal research, I found a lot of the cannabis propaganda started in the South, and it was used as a tool to fight immigration, particularly immigration at the Mexican border. They referred to it as ‘marihuana’, to ‘Mexicanize’ it and make it sound scary to white people. They misinformed people, telling them that it makes you crazy, or turns people into murderers. They prohibited it in large part so they could make it easier to arrest and deport immigrants. In the 1920s, it wasn’t technically illegal. In 1937, it was the Marihuana Tax Act that paved the way to make it illegal. It has been a tool used against certain minority populations in the U.S. for a very long time. And what I want to express to students is that I know a lot of you have experience either directly or indirectly with these drugs, but let’s approach this intelligently and figure out what they actually do. If you want to experiment with them, be aware of what they do to your brain and your body first. I want people to talk more openly about drugs and talk about them from an objective point of view. There’s good research available to everybody–why not use it to educate and inform yourself on how they actually work?
Clarissa: Thank you for sharing! A lot of people see this topic as taboo. If we can talk more about its purpose and impact, more future Dr. Birds will have space to join the conversation.
Ryan has more exciting CBD research and its impact on the brain in the works.