A digital illustration of the brain

A digital illustration of the brain. Image by iStock.

Zach Pierce paints a detailed picture of what his professional life could look like 10 years from now.

In his mind’s eye, he sees himself as a tenure-track professor at a top research university, heading a lab at the nexus of neuroscience and social work. He’s running clinical tests and trials, with a particular focus on helping people who have survived trauma. And his lab is a training ground for students, especially those looking to infuse research into their clinical practice. 

“My goal is to add to the number of neuroscientists who are working in the field of social work,” says Pierce, a trauma specialist at a behavioral health agency who earned his master’s degree from the Boston College School of Social Work in May. “How trauma shows up in the brain, as well as how trauma shows up in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—that’s kind of my thing.”

His career vision is not a pipe dream, but rather a readily attainable goal that took shape at BC. 

One of his most formative experiences came as an intern in BCSSW’s Cell to Society Lab, which uses neuroimaging to understand how social context affects brain development. Working under the direction of associate professor Jessica Black, Pierce published two peer-reviewed papers and currently has four manuscripts under review. 

His first paper, published in Trauma, Violence, and Abuse in December 2021, looked at how different forms of therapy used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder impact the human brain. The paper centered on a review of more than three dozen studies and drew particular attention to a form of therapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which involves moving your eyes a specific way while you process traumatic memories.

Black, who directs the Cell to Society Lab, describes Pierce as “collaborative,” “forward-thinking,” and “disciplined.” She says he is willing to seek guidance and  ask tough yet meaningful questions. 

Pierce has developed the hard skills to conduct research at the intersection of neuroscience and social work, according to Black, learning how neuroimaging works, how to use complex software to analyze results, and how to interpret findings. And, she says, he realizes that social work is crucial to every aspect of a collaboration with neuroscientists, from who gets to ask the research questions to how the results of a study are disseminated. 

As she puts it: “Zach understands that to engage in meaningful work at the bridge, he needs to maintain a strong and unwavering commitment to social work.”

Zach Pierce

Zach Pierce. Courtesy photo.

Pierce plans to apply for entry into BCSSW’s doctoral program in 2024, whereupon he hopes to continue to work with Black. But his time in the Cell to Society Lab was far from his only experience at BC that led him down a career path that combines neuroscience, trauma, and social work.  

He says he found his calling as a therapist who specializes in trauma-informed care during an experiential learning opportunity at a Veterans Affairs clinic in Boston. It was 2021, and he was practicing cognitive processing therapy with three veterans who had PTSD. One of the veterans, an older adult who was trafficked as a child and struggled to trust people, took him aside after one of their meetings and told him something that has fueled his work ever since. 

“I’ve never experienced this before with a new clinician, but I trust you enough to hold my story and carry it with you,” Pierce recalls his client telling him. “That really solidified it for me—this is my work in the clinical sphere of things. You’re meant to be a trauma therapist.”

His work is personal. Pierce says he survived a traumatic event as a child and often connects with his clients by telling them, simply, “I’m a survivor, too.” 

“I’ve found that that unspoken connection between survivors is one of the most powerful bonds that helps the therapeutic relationship.”

His professional interest in trauma predates his experience at BC, where he focused on mental health. Prior to enrolling in BCSSW in 2020, he earned two master’s degrees in Near Eastern languages and civilizations from Columbia University and Boston University, where he spent years studying the ways in which trauma is communicated in literature. His thesis for his program at Columbia focused on analyzing a passage in the Bible through the lens of trauma theory. 

His trauma courses at BC—among them “Adult Psychological Trauma” and “Advanced Trauma Theory and Treatment Modalities”—helped him understand how trauma affects the nervous system and impacts the client-patient relationship. He credits Kathleen Flinton, an assistant professor of the practice who has worked with survivors of trauma for more than 20 years, with teaching him how to talk about trauma with his clients at Riverside Community Care in Milford, Massachusetts.

I’ve found that that unspoken connection between survivors is one of the most powerful bonds that helps the therapeutic relationship.
Zach Pierce, MSW’22

Since he started working at Riverside in June, Pierce has followed Flinton’s advice to focus on one traumatic event at a time and ease into it. He compares the process to that of a swimmer who is carefully wading into a body of water. 

“We’re wading into the ocean, controlling how fast we walk in. We’re not diving headfirst and getting pulled under. And if it’s getting too deep, then we can take a step back,” says Pierce, who earned a certificate in trauma from BCSSW. “It’s a very controlled process, and by focusing on one event or memory, we avoid the possibility of having other ones bleed into the session and interrupting the very important work that we’re doing together.”

Sometimes the work can get extremely intense and acutely stressful. One time, a client at Riverside called Pierce to say that she had deliberately harmed herself in the moments before she phoned. After he helped her navigate the situation and ensured that she was safe, he lay back in his chair and did a breathing exercise to reduce his own anxiety. 

His self-care routine includes reading, playing video games, and listening to podcasts. And he copes with his own trauma by writing music for his heavy metal band Tearmyself, which released its new single “Soul Seller” last week. 

“I use music as a way to channel the anger, the sadness, and the loss that come with surviving trauma,” says Pierce, who plays guitar and writes the lyrics for the band. “Instead of letting those feelings fester within, I’m expelling them and putting them into a creative medium that allows me to process them.” 

He is getting closer to reaching his career goal every day, week, month. As he prepares to team up with Black to present new research at the national conference for the Society for Neuroscience and the 68th Annual Program Meeting of the Council on Social Work Education in November, he is taking what he’s learned at BCSSW and applying it to his work at Riverside.

His biggest takeaway? “Our clients are far more capable of telling us what they need and putting those needs into action than we give them credit,” he says.