Jean: Alzheimer’s Crusader, App Developer, and Internationally-Acclaimed Violinist

Jean is a student from the United States who attended the Summer STEM Institute (SSI). Jean is passionate about neuroscience, Alzheimer’s research, and community impact projects. As an avid violinist, Jean is a part of Emory University's Youth Symphony Orchestra and has been invited to perform in London as well as the Musikverein in Austria as part of the International Youth Talent Orchestra. She currently combines her interests in music and community impact by performing in virtual violin concerts and hosting mindfulness workshops for senior living centers across the United States. After SSI, Jean was admitted to the Ghalei lab at Emory University, and she is currently working on a project and is expecting to publish her work in a peer-reviewed journal by the end of the year! Additionally, after SSI, Jean was also introduced to the Coronavirus Visualization Team by another SSI alumni, and she currently serves as their secretary and writer. You can learn more about Jean, her passion for neuroscience, and all the other projects she’s been up to in the interview below! 

How did you first become interested in science or research?

I think science and research generally align with who I am as a student. What I mean is that I find myself learning by asking myself, my peers, and my teachers questions, and I think that this process of seeking knowledge is the essence of research. I'm naturally curious, so I’ve always gravitated towards science, particularly the life sciences. Before high school, I wasn’t really exposed to formal research for science fairs and projects yet, but science had always been my favorite class each year. I thought SSI’s focus on data science and research was really interesting, and it was a good fit for me since my school requires us to participate in science fairs in sophomore year. Right now, I’m particularly interested in the field of neuroscience, specifically the aging brain and Alzheimer’s. 

What extracurricular activities are you involved in?

I'm the Vice President of my school's environmental club. Since everything’s virtual right now, I feel like it’s more difficult to get people to actively participate. We’ve created events like virtual programs and sustainability shorts in order to spread awareness around implementing simple life changes to have a more positive impact on the environment. I also enjoy playing my violin in my free time, and am a part of Emory University's Youth Symphony Orchestra. I have been invited to perform in London as well as the Musikverein in Austria as part of an International Youth Talent Orchestra. Since I can’t give in-person concerts for now, I’ve been reaching out to senior living centers across the United States to see if they would like to listen to me play the violin. I think this is really important, because during COVID, seniors are particularly vulnerable to being affected by isolation and depression. I also have been hosting online mindfulness classes for the seniors at these living centers, which I hope will help them cope with what is proving to be a very difficult time. 

Additionally, I am also an EarthDNA Ambassador, which is a program that teaches people how to be leaders in the climate change movement. It’s funded by organizations such as the UN, NOAA, and NASA, and it uses AI and global metrics to better understand how to accelerate positive changes in sustainability. The ambassador training materials are based off of materials from the Harvard Kennedy School and MIT. Also, I am currently a writer for Harvard's Center of Geographic Analysis, where I write summaries about different research groups' research projects. 

What do you think was the most valuable lesson or skill you learned from SSI?

SSI showed me that everyone really does have the potential to make a difference in the world. It taught me that everyone may start from the same place, but we all have to find our passions, put in the work, and make it happen. Learning from my peers, the instructors, and all the mentors I’ve met along the way definitely was a highlight of the experience. Struggling through the problem sets and working through everything with patience gave me a newfound sense of confidence in myself. Finally, I learned the importance of outreach and taking a leap when you want to achieve something, even if that means reaching out to strangers. Before SSI, I wouldn't have thought of or had the confidence to cold email senior living communities, especially ones that aren’t even in my state. SSI taught me the skills I needed in order to do this well, and I definitely see myself continuing to use these skills in whatever I decide to do later on! Overall, SSI really expanded my outlook and made me realize I could look for wonderful opportunities and experiences, and I'm very grateful to the SSI team for that!

What was your favorite part about SSI? 

My favorite part of SSI was definitely the Masterclass lecture series because we had the opportunity to listen to a new person speak everyday and learn from their experiences and areas of expertise. All the speakers were just so unique in their own ways, and I found their stories to be really inspirational. It was really inspiring to see how all the speakers were taking advantage of so many opportunities and making such good use of their time. The speakers also offered really useful tips and resources for us. For example, one of the speakers even gave us a copy of his time management tracker, which I’m still using and finding very cool. The speakers also introduced us to so many competitions and amazing opportunities that they were a part of.

How has SSI changed the way you view data science or research?

SSI has totally transformed the way I view data science and research! Through conducting my research project over the summer and learning from the bootcamp, I came to understand what research really is, how to conduct it, and the really useful tools that would help along the way. As I said before, I originally didn’t have much research experience to begin with, so I learned so much about it from SSI. This summer experience also helped me realize the connection between data science and research, and just how important data science is to conducting scientific research. Especially now, in the COVID era, not many of us have access to wet labs, so data science research has probably become even more important. 

The skills that I have learned in statistics, data science, and research from the program have been so helpful, especially when it comes to my school activities, as I am currently conducting my science fair project for school (not to mention it's helpful for AP Bio and AP Stats!). I enjoyed being able to design my own project for SSI and thinking through the logic, while receiving help from the wonderful mentors in my research group!

What have you been up to after your SSI? Are there any exciting projects you're working on? 

Yes! I was just recently admitted to the Ghalei lab at Emory University in Georgia, which focuses on studying rRNAs, a really important component of ribosomes. I'm working on a project and am expecting a publication in a peer-reviewed journal by the end of the year! 

Also, I'm working on a new project where I'm trying to create an app that can perform very accurate image to text scans for ingredient labels on cosmetic products since many cosmetic products aren’t well regulated by the FDA. There could be many harmful ingredients in products that people don’t know about - products that we use every day. If we’re able to convert the ingredient label into text, and “translate” the ingredients because many people aren’t aware of what the chemical names mean, then we can all be smarter consumers and minimize harm.

Additionally, after SSI, I was introduced to the Coronavirus Visualization Team by another SSI Alumni, Fialeta. The Coronavirus Visualization Team is part of Harvard University's Erevna, a student-run NGO, and I recently became a secretary for their organization and I manage external relationships and communication. It’s been really cool since they are in contact with the World Health Organization (WHO)! I am also a writer for their Mental Health Project and Environmental Influences Project, and we find new studies/papers to write about weekly. 

How has SSI influenced your plans for the future?

Apart from the technical aspects of the program, I think SSI has really given me the tools and encouragement to plan more community impact projects in the future. I’m thinking about maybe starting a nonprofit organization in the future. I’ve previously organized a Walk to End Alzheimer's Fundraiser, where I fundraised money for Alzheimer’s research in honor of my grandfather who had Alzheimer’s disease. Also, the mindfulness classes that I’ve been hosting for the senior living centers were inspired by SSI. SSI helped me realize that I could connect my interests in a meaningful way. 

What are your long term career goals? And where do you see yourself in 15 to 20 years?

In the future, I would like to be a physician as well as a researcher. Since neuroscience is a rapidly growing field, I hope to contribute meaningful research to the space. I’d especially like to continue with research about aging in the brain and Alzheimer's so that I'll be able to conduct more sophisticated research projects, and maybe even work towards finding a cure one day!