Dr. Ryan J. McLaughlin joined the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience at WSU as an assistant professor in 2014 and was promoted to associate professor in 2021. Dr. McLaughlin completed his doctorate at the University of British Columbia and his post-doctorate studies at McGill University. At WSU, he is working to determine how endogenous and exogenous cannabinoids affect the brain and behavior. His research has shown that the endocannabinoid system is a vital component of the neuroendocrine and behavioral stress response, and that pharmacologically targeting this system could be a promising strategy for treating stress-related disorders.
What are your current research interests and what attracted you to that area?
My current research interests are all things cannabis. Specifically, I am interested in developing more translational animal models of cannabis exposure in rodents that I can use to better understand the acute and chronic effects of cannabis use on the brain, behavior, cognition, and development. I think that this is a really important time for cannabis researchers, particularly in Washington state where recreational cannabis use has been legal for almost a decade now, and I feel like rodent models of cannabis use can offer tremendous insight into some of the long-term effects of cannabis use during sensitive developmental stages, such as pregnancy and adolescence.
I also look for opportunities to collaborate with my partner in work (and life), Dr. Carrie Cuttler, who runs The Health and Cognition Lab in the Department of Psychology at WSU. Dr. Cuttler’s research program explores effects of cannabis on health and cognition in humans and thus, our unique clinical/preclinical partnership offers a direct pipeline for both forward- and reverse-translational approaches.
However, I really got interested in cannabis research through my training in the endogenous cannabinoid system, which is our body and brain’s own version of cannabis. It turns out that endocannabinoids in our brain finetune synaptic signaling in brain areas that coordinate our body’s response to threats in the environment, real or perceived, and thus I became interested in learning about how we can leverage our understanding of the endocannabinoid system to better understand, and possibly treat, stress-related neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with your research?
I hope the research findings generated with rats and mice in my lab can contribute meaningful knowledge regarding the long-term effects of cannabis use and that such knowledge can be used to inform citizens of the potential risks (or benefits) of cannabis use in certain populations. I also hope the research I have contributed to over the years leads to better pharmacotherapeutic strategies for stress-related disorders. In many ways this is already coming to fruition with several drug companies engaging in clinical trials with novel endocannabinoid-based compounds.
What do you want to be remembered for when your career is over?
When my career is over, I just want to be remembered as a good mentor and someone who really cared about their students. In the realm of research, I know any advances we make, regardless of the journal that publishes them, will be small, especially when compared to the impact we can have as mentors to future generations of scientists.
What motivates you outside of work?
I am all about work-life balance. My family and our three dogs are always at the center of my universe, and spending time with my wife, Carrie, and our 11-year-old son, Evan, is what I look forward to most each day. We really enjoy opportunities to travel, which is one of the many perks of a life in academia, and now that our son is getting older, I am really excited for him to start joining us on our travels so we can start to expand his perspective on the world. At home, we play lots of basketball. and with two huskies, it is always assured at least 1-2 hours or my day are dedicated to long walks through the beautiful hills of Pullman. During those walks, I often like to reflect, which inspires appreciation for my time on the Palouse and everything we have built together in the nine-plus years that we’ve been here.
What advice would you give to younger people considering a career in science?
My advice is to stick with it and make sure you find an area of research that you are passionate about. I attribute part of my success to the fact that I stuck with a question I was inherently interested in since my teenage years. Once I found the right mentor who was able to provide a gateway for networking in the field, I eventually found my niche and was able to see more clearly how I could advance my career and become more successful in science. The graduate school version of me would be very surprised to see where I ended up and how it all worked out in the end. But none of it would have been possible if I did not persist through the hard times when my future in academia was still largely uncertain. I owe much of it to luck and being in the right place at the right time and, of course, to WSU and the IPN program. They took a chance on a Canadian with a passion for cannabinoids, and I think it has worked out pretty well so far.
Why did you choose to come to WSU?
Honestly, I was given a chance at WSU without knowing much about Pullman or who “the Cougs” were at the time. I applied for the position after a recommendation from a fellow colleague, not thinking that I realistically had a shot at obtaining a faculty position at that stage of my career. One thing led to another, fast-forward nine years, and here we are. At the time it was the only faculty position that I applied for, so I was honestly shocked when I was offered a position in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience and jumped at the opportunity, especially knowing how competitive the job market is. WSU made a concerted effort to make sure my family was happy during the hiring process and it was so refreshing to move to a safe, small town where we could afford to start a life with our son after spending the last decade in larger cities.