Inspiring Alumni | Jay Cross '80
"WE NEED FRESH IDEAS; WE NEED OPENNESS; WE NEED PEOPLE TO THINK ABOUT WORKING TOGETHER TO FACE THE CHALLENGES IN OUR WORLD. WE NEED TO INVEST IN CHILDREN - IT'S IN OUR BIOLOGY TO WANT TO HELP OTHERS. TEACH THE YOUNG TO SERVE AND SEEK OUT SOLUTIONS TO PROBLEMS THEY SEE."
Dr. Jay Cross '80, who is now celebrating more than 20 years as a professor at the Cumming School of Medicine and Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary (U of C), recalls that he never considered a career in the sciences - not initially, at least.
"At the last minute in my first semester at McGill University, I decided to take an elective in biology. It changed my life. My instructor was a storyteller, sharing how people made discoveries, successes, and failures. He discussed controversies and how the scientific community is affected. It wasn't just facts and figures, but it was about people. His perspectives inspired me so much that I changed my major from economics to biology before Christmas that first year."
Following three years at McGill, Jay received a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Saskatchewan and a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri before accepting a position at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center, a global leader in developmental genetics research. "I was successful in that environment, and it helped me with my confidence to pursue a career with challenging research subjects."
In 2000, he returned to Calgary as a professor at the U of C, where he was instrumental in developing the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute.
He recalls a sense of competition and a lack of connection between the various university departments in those early years. "In some cases, many people weren't aware of the work occurring across campus." It took time and intentional efforts to break down some of the silos. Still, Jay kept engaging with the University and hospital communities, and interest led to connection, which led to the institutions adapting to change and working more closely together.
"Of course, when the community gets excited about something, that's going to nudge the institutions to adapt," he adds. "It was convincing people almost one at a time to energize researchers to be bolder in their thinking."
Working towards a common goal was a profound lesson he drew from his time at STS, especially in the Outdoor Education program. “In order to get to your destination or overcome a goal of climbing a pass or weathering a storm, you have to be conscious that everybody’s on board with the same vision of a destination. You have to adapt as a team, and sometimes, if you’re dealing with adversity, a bitter cold, a bad storm or a broken ski, you have to learn to control your emotions…express empathy, and be kind to yourself. I think those lessons could’ve happened in other group work, but I think it’s most profound or real in the OE experiences I had.”
As someone who has devoted his life to medical research, he never anticipated that his biggest challenge would include coming to terms with being a patient himself.
"Over ten years ago, I developed a chronic illness. I had to reinvent myself, changing expectations of who I was…living with pain every day." With all the relationships fostered to advocate for his research projects and his medical knowledge, he was privileged to gain invaluable advice and support from specialists.
Living with an autoimmune disease has taught him to approach each day with the same patience and humanity that has defined his career. "Initially, it was hard because I was proud and felt I could endure anything. Instead, I had to turn that around and say, 'Ok, you're having a flare. Be kind to yourself and accept that at least you know what's going on. The flare will end at some point.' But those are tough lessons to learn."
In June, Jay was awarded the 2023 Olds College Honorary Degree for his outstanding contributions to veterinary medicine and education. “We are thrilled to honour Dr. Cross,” said Dr. Ben Cecil, President of Olds College of Agriculture & Technology. “His expertise in reproductive biology and genetics, coupled with his dedication to empowering students to tackle future problems, makes him a truly deserving recipient of this prestigious award."
Jay is now passing along his experience - and giving a platform - to the leaders of tomorrow. "We need fresh ideas; we need openness; we need people to think about working together to face the challenges in our world. We need to invest in children - it's in our biology to want to help others. Teach the young to serve and seek out solutions to problems they see."
Published in the 2023 edition of Optimum Magazine