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Jessica McHugh: From the Field to the Lab

Dr. Ginsburg with Jessica McHugh

With a lifelong interest in and aptitude for science, Jessica McHugh ’20 is exploring career options in biotechnology or forensic chemistry. This summer, she spent approximately seven hours a day testing to determine if the protein complex Yaf9, a subunit of NuA4, stimulates binding to acetylated histones. Very complex research!

As part the Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars Initiative that builds vital success pathways for female undergraduates in math and the sciences, Jessica gained valuable laboratory experience working with Daniel Ginsburg, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at Immaculata. Selected as program director for the Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars Initiative, Dr. Ginsburg tutored Jessica, who is a chemistry major, so she could understand, step-by-step, the procedures needed for the research and analysis from a biological perspective.

Dr. Ginsburg notes that although they are studying the yeast version of the complex, it is the human version that is involved in diseases, including many cancers and Alzheimer’s. “Understanding how it works can help us fix it when it gets messed up.”

Jessica learned how the biology and chemistry fields work together when investigating compounds and conducting other research initiatives. “Jess has done a great job in the lab this summer,” states Dr. Ginsburg. ”She has mastered some difficult techniques and been able to generate and analyze her own complex data. Her results have suggested that our hypothesis is correct about the protein complex that we’re studying.” Facilitating hands-on lab experience reflects the purpose of the Clare Boothe Luce Scholars Initiative, which is to strengthen mentorship of underserved students and help advance women and underserved minorities within the sciences.

Not only is Jessica a talented student who attains Dean’s List status, she also serves as a tour guide for the admissions department and is often the first face many prospective students associate with Immaculata.

“I want them to feel comfortable, to feel at home,” she says. Being an active student, Jessica can share her campus experiences with the high schoolers, such as the service trips and retreats that she enjoys attending with campus ministry. However, she likes to dig deeper and shares a personal story about why she stayed at Immaculata.

Jessica admits that she is like her mom – very stubborn. “My mom and great aunt always told me that I was going to go to Immaculata and I would be on the track team there, too,” she explains. “I was always against it because I didn’t want to be told what to do – what was best for me. I wanted to figure it out.” During her senior year of high school, it was college decision time, so she decided to attend Immaculata, but assumed that she would transfer after a semester.

“It was all of the friends that I made, right away, and getting involved with campus ministry that got me to stay,” she admits. And yes, Jessica is on the track team and loves it!

Running track since fourth grade, Jessica participates in the indoor and outdoor track teams for the Mighty Macs during the winter and spring. The bond that she has developed with her teammates goes beyond the sport. “I love it – at some of the meets, my friends will come up to my parents, if they’re able to attend – just automatically go over to them and start talking.”

Jessica notes that athletes who compete at the Division III level, like they do at Immaculata, can attempt new sports without having to worry about the pressure of trying something new. “Our coaches are always trying to find a place for everyone to use their skills,” she explains.

Off the field and out of the lab, Jessica is enjoying many of her non-science classes, too. Not sure what to expect at first, she thoroughly enjoyed Sister Annette Pelletier’s class Theology of the Human Person, which examined human rights in today’s world and historical developments in human rights. “I always recommend this class,” she says.

This past spring, Jessica was the recipient of the Resident Assistant (RA) of the Year Award at the annual Student Leadership Recognition event; the award is usually presented to a senior RA. Besides gaining the leadership skills associated with being an RA, Jessica has learned some valuable lessons about getting along with other people. “I’ve had to deal with all kinds of personalities. Being an RA has taught me to take a step back from whatever [I’m] thinking and try to focus on how to use people’s skills,” she states. In addition, she is honing her problem-solving skills, which will definitely help with her scientific research.

Jessica loves spending time with her friends and family. Growing up in Harleysville, Pa., with her parents and younger brother, she attended Pope John Paul II High School in nearby Royersford. When she has time, she enjoys reading. Over the summer, she took advantage of the vast selection of non-fiction books available at Gabriele Library. Her tastes range from classic Agatha Christie murder mysteries to a new favorite, The Glass Castle. Of course, it is no surprise that one of her preferred pastimes is running.

Although she may hate to admit it, her mom is always right!

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