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The neuroscientist, the teacher and the road to Ruvo

Scientists Jessica and Jeff Caldwell met through a personal ad. They agreed to get coffee on a cold, blue-sky afternoon in late 2007, early in the time of the Craigslist killer. Each had a plan for a quick exit in case the date got weird.

Jessica, an Ivy League-educated neuropsychologist, placed the ad at a friend’s urging. She wrote, “I like ’em skinny, well read and rough around the edges.”

Scanning the ads on Craigslist — where he’d found his apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, and furniture to fill it — Jeff was intrigued. A marathon runner and triathlete, he considered himself “relatively skinny.” Plus he read a lot. After growing up in a small rural town and then traveling abroad, he figured he could “rough it pretty much anywhere.”

Jeff and Jessica Caldwell at home with children Torran and Kirkland. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Rev ...
Jeff and Jessica Caldwell at home with children Torran and Kirkland. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

The pair emailed, spoke on the phone and made a date. Jeff’s friends half-jokingly told him to expect “some big dude in the alleyway,” recalls the field biologist-turned-Henderson middle school science teacher. But the coffee date in Madison led to dinner that evening, then after-dinner drinks, a kiss on the walk home and, a year later, an engagement.

The ad had hinted at what they would discover early on: that they shared a small-town, working-class background as well as a love for learning that had launched them into the larger world.

• • •

Jessica, who now runs the women’s Alzheimer’s prevention program at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in downtown Las Vegas, grew up in Negaunee, Michigan, a town of about 5,000 in the Upper Peninsula. Her auto mechanic parents own a repair shop there. Watching them work, she observed how pieces fit together and multiple systems work in tandem.

An avid reader who loved school, she entered Princeton University, where she flourished academically while often feeling like an outsider. Despite her family’s line of work, she’d never before seen in person a Mercedes or a Jaguar, cars driven by classmates.

She worked to get rid of her long-voweled “Yooper” accent. “I wanted to be seen as just as smart as everyone else, and part of that was speaking the way other people spoke, which was a very East Coast-drivenvocabulary as well as accent,” says Jessica, 41.

“I was very proud of where I was from, so it never made me feel second class, but I always felt this need to prove myself.”

After getting a psychology degree at Princeton in 2003, she studied clinical psychology in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where her future husband was working for a pharmaceutical company and studying to be a teacher.

Like Jessica, Jeff grew up in a town of 5,000, in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, where his mother worked as a hairdresser and his stepfather as an accountant. His stepfather, who hadn’t gone to college, urged him to study business.

But Jeff was keen on science, an interest fueled in childhood by incessant watching of the Discovery Channel. In third grade he forged his mother’s signature on a note saying he was sick so he could skip school for a day to watch Shark Week.

He majored in genetics and zoology at the University of Wisconsin, where he played trumpet in the marching band.

Jeff Caldwell in his marching band days at the University of Wisconsin. (Courtesy photo)
Jeff Caldwell in his marching band days at the University of Wisconsin. (Courtesy photo)
He also researched potatoes resistant to frost in a potato genetics lab on campus. As part of a science exchange, he spent his junior year in Scotland.

After graduating, he returned to Scotland for two years, finding a job “selling stuff out of a van” — Disney products, laser pens, remote-control cars. Sales were good, which he attributes to customers wanting to hear his Midwestern accent.

When he returned stateside, he tracked bighorn sheep as a field biologist out of Palm Desert, California.

Eventually, he returned to Madison to get his teaching certificate. “I think I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” said the 42-year-old, who teaches science to seventh graders at Miller Middle School in Henderson. “But I thought it’d be really cool to be a scientist first.”

• • •

Two years after their first date, the couple wed in Jessica’s hometown. Their early years together were marked by frequent moves, which the pair approached as an adventure.

Jeff and Jessica Caldwell at their wedding in 2009. (Courtesy photo)
Jeff and Jessica Caldwell at their wedding in 2009. (Courtesy photo)

They went to Boston, where Jessica completed an internship in clinical psychology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. They were then on to Providence, Rhode Island, for Jessica’s fellowship at Brown University and The Miriam Hospital.

In graduate school, Jessica studied differences between the brains of boys and girls and their relationship to depression and behavioral problems. Her training as a clinical neuropsychologist was mostly in memory disorders, which primarily affect older people.

After completing her post-doctoral work in 2013, she left academia and research to help build a memory disorders program at the hospital where she was born in Marquette, Michigan, near her hometown.

It seemed like a promising landing spot, but Marquette proved limiting for both Jeff and Jessica. In two and a half years, not a single middle or high school teaching position opened up in the area, so Jeff couldn’t work in his chosen field. Meanwhile, Jessica realized she needed a home base that gave her more room for professional growth and impact.

So, in 2016, the couple moved to Las Vegas, where Jessica accepted a job that offered both the types of cases she wanted to treat and tantalizing research opportunities. When journalist and Alzheimer’s advocate Maria Shriver asked the Ruvo Center if it could research how the disease affects men and women differently, Jessica eagerly stepped into the role. The work married her two main interests: memory disorders and sex differences in the brain.

• • •

In 2020, Shriver and the Ruvo Center collaboratively launched the first center in the country devoted to preventing Alzheimer’s specifically in women. Jessica became its director.

The Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic evaluates women ages 30 to 60 at heightened risk for developing Alzheimer’s due to family history and genetic factors. It assesses a patient’s individual risk factors, evaluating her diet, exercise, stress levels, sleep, mood and general health, and provides an individualized plan for staving off illness. Evidence suggests that one-third of cases are preventable.

Justin Miller, who has worked with Jessica since she arrived at Ruvo, described her as “an incredibly thoughtful and deliberate thinker.”

Jessica Caldwell examines brain scans at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. (L.E. Baskow/Las ...
Jessica Caldwell examines brain scans at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“She’s at times a little more quiet in some of our meetings and interactions,” says Miller, director of the neuropsychology department at the Ruvo Center. “What I’ve come to learn is that quietness should not be mistaken for passivity. … There’s an element of very deep thinking. I listen intently for Jessica’s input because I know what I’m going to get is going to be very well-reasoned, very articulate, very objective and scientifically minded.”

Meanwhile, Jeff had quickly found a job at Miller Middle School. He enjoyed connecting with students through jokes or personal stories that brought the school day — and the science — to life.

“He shares personal anecdotes and creates a familylike atmosphere in his classes,” says Nicole Donadio, the school principal. “He is well-liked by the students because he makes every effort to relate to them. This is evident in his highly engaging lessons that appeal to a variety of learners.”

Jeff also coaches cross country at the school and sponsors a “Magic: The Gathering” club based on the trading card game.

• • •

Jessica was pregnant with the couple’s son when they arrived in Las Vegas. Torran, now 6, is named after a Scottish cottage Jeff saw during his travels and put on his 200-item bucket list to return to one day. Their 4-year-old daughter is named Kirkland, Jessica’s maiden name.

The rhythm of their family life has been shaped in part by work schedules and the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, Jeff taught his students online and Jessica had virtual visits with patients while their longtime nanny watched their children. With so much time spent at home, each began taking one evening a week to themselves while the other stayed with the kids, a practice they continue today. Jessica, who has published poetry and fiction, spends her free evening reading and writing. Jeff plays Dungeons & Dragons online with longtime friends.

When Jeff has the kids by himself, he likes to take them places like a museum or park. He’ll also get in a workout, riding the stationary bike while they all watch a movie or swimming laps between games in the pool. Jessica prefers staying home with the kids, reading to them or making up games. On summer mornings, she rises at 4:30 to go for a walk before the heat sets in. Jeff stays up as late as midnight several nights a week grading papers and planning lessons.

Of the pair, Jessica tends to be more pragmatic. Once they had kids, she insisted that Jeff remove swimming with sharks from his bucket list. He was able to check it off anyway when harmless leopard sharks swam above him and his students while they were snorkeling off California’s Catalina Island during a field trip.

The couple shares what Jessica described as the drive to always find the next big thing. For her, it’s taking the women’s Alzheimer’s program to the next level and making it sustainable. For Jeff, it’s hitting the next item on his bucket list.

The couple’s shared ambition extends to being silly. For their 10th wedding anniversary, Jessica surprised Jeff by arranging a vow renewal at a Taco Bell on the Strip.

“Jeff loves Taco Bell,” where he worked as a teen, Jessica says.

In turn, Jeff surprised Jessica by tracking down and buying a 4-foot-high statue of a gothic lion whose image she has used for years as her profile picture on her personal email. Years ago, the stern-faced lion was briefly a “disappointed lion” meme that cracked her up.

On a hot July evening, the lion is nearby as the family sits on the couch together reading a story about how animals use camouflage to avoid getting eaten by predators.

The lion seems to be guarding the household as it sits in the foyer by a staircase, looking hungry and a little rough around the edges. ◆

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