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Shape your destiny: Jessica Carr

In 2008, the Department of Physics and Astronomy partnered with Jilin University in China on nanoscience research as part of a National Science Foundation grant. Students and faculty traveled to China for two months to work collaboratively at the State Key Laboratory of Supramolecular Structure and Materials.

Fairmont, W.Va. native Jessica Carr (B.S., 2013) represented WVU as an undergraduate researcher at the symposium. The double major in chemistry and math went on to earn a Goldwater Scholarship in 2012, the most prestigious honor for undergraduate scholars in the STEM fields. Today, she is a Ph.D. student in chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she develops imaging systems for biological applications. We followed up with Carr to see where her undergraduate research experience has taken her.

Jessica Carr

How did you go about selecting chemistry as your major?

I had planned to go to WVU for pharmacy school. (In high school, I decided that was interesting to me, plus WVU has a great pharmacy program). After my first year of taking classes and then doing the internship abroad in a more hands-on chemistry lab, I decided the more rigorous chemistry was exciting and appealing. Instead, I switched my focus from pharmacy to chemistry, took more advanced chemistry classes, and added a math major, which was more of a hobby, on the side. Ultimately, I knew I wanted to pursue a chemistry-based career focusing on research. 

How did you know you wanted to focus on research?

One reason I pursued the internship program at Jilin University in the first place was my experience in Dr. Jeffrey Petersen’s advanced chemistry 117/118 course. I had a really fantastic experience—I really fit in there. It was a small, intimate group of motivated students already excited about science and the advanced lab classes. Dr. Petersen was very encouraging of pursuing research. I had never been abroad, and it was intimidating for my first experience to be that far away. I was so fulfilled by this program, especially not really knowing what I’d be getting myself into the summer after my freshman year.

Tell us about your research experience at Jilin University. What was your role on the research team?

We helped graduate students synthesize solutions that would trap fluorescent materials, and then designed new liquid crystal components for those materials. Having never done research before, my graduate mentor there gave me small tasks—I helped make solutions and characterized molecules we made of these new liquidized crystalized materials.

I loved learning in a new culture, and the experience encouraged me to pursue other study abroad programs. I still use a lot of those skills in a university like MIT where half of the students are international. Being culturally minded and internationally minded is very helpful for communicating with all of these students from different backgrounds. Understanding there might be cultural differences and being able to communicate through that is a useful skill to have rather than expecting them to be the same and have the same experiences as us in the U.S.

What are you researching at MIT?

I am a fourth-year graduate student at MIT in chemistry working to develop imaging systems for biological applications. We have developed new ways of imaging fluorescent particles in living systems and are working to design systems that can help our collaborators interested in medical problems (e.g. strokes). 

What are your future goals?

I am considering a collaboration with an ear, nose and throat specialist developing small hand-held device for imaging the ear. We are currently doing clinical trials with pediatric patients at his hospital, and we are working toward commercializing the technology if studies go well. If the feedback from pediatricians is positive, I’d be interested in working full-time toward commercializing that device. If not, I am still very interested in developing new technologies for medical problems. I am interested in joining a start-up and taking the entrepreneurship route. 

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