Bucking tradition, family man Jake Whiteside graduates with neuroscience, Chinese combo

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Jake Whiteside, center, will graduate with degrees in neuroscience and Chinese. His wife and two young children will be cheering him on, as always. Photo courtesy of Jake Whiteside

The only traditional characteristic of Jake Whiteside, a graduating senior at IUPUI, is his age.

Before coming to campus, Whiteside was home-schooled. He moved out at 17 years old to fix up a mobile home, plumbing included, for the woman who became his wife shortly after his 18th birthday. Just weeks shy of commencement, he already has two young children. He'll also have two degrees, and even they aren't a common combination.

It would be easy to think that a trailblazer has to travel alone. In Whiteside's case, however, his success along nontraditional paths has been achieved largely with limitless support from those around him.

"The Honors College has been crucial to my schooling, kind of like the crux of my schooling," Whiteside said. "Coming from my home-school background, a lot of that time was spent … I wouldn't say in dire financial straits, but along those lines."

Whiteside, who is majoring in neuroscience and Chinese, is a recipient of the Chancellor's Scholarship, without which he likely wouldn't have been able to afford college at all. He's also taken advantage of the Honors College's study abroad stipend and the Confucius Institute's scholarship, which not only allowed him to travel to China, but also to take his growing family with him.

During his month in Guangzhou, Xi'An and Beijing, Whiteside took language and culture classes with the rest of the traveling party. The language classes paid off in, of course, a less-than-traditional way.

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Jake Whiteside, left, and his family traveled to China as part of the Confucius Institute's study abroad program. Photo courtesy of Jake Whiteside

"I like to measure my Chinese proficiency by the fact that I was able to buy and resell a bicycle in China. I didn't make any money, but I did buy and resell one because my wife really wanted one," said Whiteside, whose kids are now nearly 3 years old and 7 months old. "We had a bike with a front seat for my daughter, May, and an extra back seat, and we all were on this little rickety bike. It was ridiculous, but it was a lot of fun, and I managed to resell it. I guess I'm good at Chinese."

Whiteside and four medical students on the trip also had the added bonus of visiting medical centers in Guangzhou with Dr. Zao Xu of the Confucius Institute and the IU School of Medicine. They saw the variety of practices, including Western facilities comparable to what is seen in the U.S. as well as those offering traditional Chinese medicine such as acupuncture.

Back in Indiana, he assists in a pair of labs, including one that aims to improve surgical education for those training in laparoscopic surgery. The research group is investigating how mentally rehearsing surgical procedures ahead of time can improve surgeons' performance and reduce their stress in the operating room.

Whiteside will take a year off after graduating, but instead of backpacking across Europe like a stereotypical gap-year student, he'll continue his research, adding a virtual reality component.

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Jake Whiteside presented some of his research at the Greater Indiana Society for Neuroscience earlier this spring. Photo courtesy of Jake Whiteside

"One of the biggest problems for training surgeons is when they're looking at a camera at a different angle. They're used to training with the camera in front, with their instruments in front, and they're just doing their thing," explained Whiteside, a Top 100 award winner. "But sometimes you have to move the camera, and when you move the camera, all of a sudden, they freak out and their performance drops by 30 or 40 percent. I'm trying to see if we can utilize mental skills and virtual reality to mitigate that drop."

To keep the study from being cost-prohibitive, Whiteside is working with Luke Brown, a fellow Honors College student in the School of Informatics and Computing, who is creating a cheaper VR model specifically for the project. It's these relationships with other motivated students that have also contributed to Whiteside's success at IUPUI.

"My friends in the Honors College have been really useful. It's especially nice to work with like-minded people," said Whiteside, who also credits his wife's incredible patience and their parents' support to being able to balance coursework with family life. "Being with a lot of people who definitely care about their academics has helped me to succeed a lot, too."