As a boy, James Cassella spent long hours lining up building blocks to create small cities. He liked figuring out how objects worked. After taking an after-school psychology course in high school, he realized that he liked figuring out one object in particular: the human brain.
He majored in Psychology at the University of New Haven, then pursued the subject for a Ph.D. at Dartmouth College. A post-doctoral fellowship in the Psychiatry Department of the Yale University School of Medicine led to a chance encounter with his future wife, Denise, in a Yale passageway. A job offer as an assistant professor of Neuroscience at Oberlin College in Ohio launched his career as an academic.
Years later, an unexpected phone call sent him in a new direction. A group of friends from Yale wanted to start a biotech company, so he moved back to Connecticut to join the highly successful startup Neurogen. “I realized that not many people knew much about the brain, and I felt that I might actually be able to make a contribution to the science, so I kept getting in deeper and deeper,” he says.
Now the senior vice president for Research and Development for Alexza Pharmaceuticals, a fast-emerging California pharmaceutical company, he is fully immersed in the life of the brain. During the past 20 years, he has translated his knowledge into the discovery and development of novel drugs and treatments for neurological and psychiatric disorders.
Cassella credits the University with helping him realize his life’s dream. “UNH was clearly part of my success,” he says. “It was a place where I thrived.”
Posted Spring 2010