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When the MIT acceptance packet arrived, Ressler had been working the night shift at Delchamp's Superstore in Ocean Springs for several years. He swept and stocked shelves in the wee hours, when customers were rare. When he told his Delchamp's coworkers that he was quitting and heading for college, they were amazed he would leave such a good job. And when he said that his destination was MIT, the puzzled response was “MIT? That stands for Mississippi what?”
Ressler left Ocean Springs knowing that computer science was his destiny. Wasn't it obvious? “I enjoyed computers and I was going to MIT.” But he was nervous about moving to a strange city where he had no friends and might be a total misfit. He worried that MIT felt compelled to accept someone from Mississippi, and he was it.
His anxiety was short-lived. Within weeks he joined a fraternity, which was cheaper than living in a dorm because the residents did much of their own cooking rather than pay a chef. (“Many of our meals were pretty awful,” he admits.) He worked hard and played hard with 40 other guys at Phi Kappa Sigma in Boston's Back Bay.
He also discovered that biology was every bit as compelling as computer science and wondered if medicine—which his mother exposed him to—might be his calling. Then Ressler fell in love with an advanced genetics lab taught by Drosophila biologist Hermann Steller, now an HHMI investigator at Rockefeller University.
Steller had his students create transgenic fruit flies and observe phenotypic changes. “That's what really sold me on being a biologist and a scientist,” Ressler recalls. Polymerase chain reaction and other new techniques had slashed the time needed to identify and clone a gene, introduce it into an animal, and examine the results. Years' worth of work could be accomplished in a semester.
Ressler asked to stay on with Steller and remained in the fly lab until he graduated. Long hours earned him the nickname “the biologist.” When he wasn't at the lab or hanging out with the guys, he was keeping company with Betsy Craig, a Wellesley student from Atlanta. The two are now married and have three sons.
As an MIT senior, Ressler was certain he and Craig belonged together and that he wanted to delve into the biology of thinking and learning. He was less sure about clinical medicine, but when he was accepted to the Medical Scientist Training Program at Harvard Medical School, he could not refuse.
The first two years of medical school at Harvard went well, but Ressler still needed the right mentor for his Ph.D. work. He knew he wanted to use molecular biology and genetics to address a significant, clinically relevant problem in neurobiology—but what problem? At just this moment, a friend invited him to tag along to a lecture by Linda Buck, a Columbia University research associate being recruited by Harvard.