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St. Louis, Missouri
Section of Stem Cell Biology, Division of Oncology, Department of Internal Medicine
Washington University School of MedicineVIEW PROFILE
Jessica Silva-Fisher, Ph.D. (BMB ’11), is an RNA cancer researcher who grew up in a “Tex-Mex” culture in San Antonio, Texas. She benefited from an elementary school teacher who saw her potential, summer programs for students interested in health care, Mayo Clinic’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) and Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) programs. Dr. Silva-Fisher is the first person in her family to graduate from college. An interest in cancer research was accelerated when her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She recently received a K22 award to start her own lab, where she conducts cancer research studying the function of regulatory RNAs.
“I participated in Mayo’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program during my junior year of college. I met a lot of wonderful people and felt welcomed. They were like family.”
I was always interested in medicine. In high school, I participated in a summer program for students interested in health care careers where we learned about a different field of medicine every weekend. I also participated in another high school program that allowed me to take pre-med types of classes.
I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. I was pre-med in college and wanted to be a pediatrician. As a sophomore, I got a job as a phase I breast cancer clinical trial specimen collector at UT Health Science Center in San Antonio. I was exposed to patient care but also got molecular biology lab experience. I worked for an amazing scientist, Linda DeGraffenried, Ph.D. She was a great role model for me and still is. Until then, I hadn’t known I could have a career in research.
My mom was diagnosed with cervical cancer during that same time. I wanted to learn more about cancer — why and how people get it and how to prevent it. My mom was a single parent, and I was the oldest child still at home, so I became my mom’s caretaker when she was diagnosed with cancer. I took her to appointments. No one in my family has a background in science, so I asked all the questions about her condition and did my best to explain this to my family. It was a lot of responsibility, but it made me want to learn more. I wanted to fight cancer and win. Many more of my family members, including my father and grandmother, have had cancer through the years and even succumbed to the disease. In my lab now, I think about my family all the time. I want to make sure research is done to help not only my family but others as well.
I participated in Mayo’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program during my junior year of college. I met a lot of wonderful people and felt welcomed. They were like family. I liked how I could send a simple email to people for help or a question, and how they were open and excited to help me. I was in awe of how well everyone at Mayo collaborated.
After my experiences in the lab and participating in the SURF program, I decided to pursue a career in cancer research, which took me back to Mayo for graduate school in biomedical sciences.
Keep in mind the bigger picture about why we do what we do — conduct research to help people. Everything we do adds value to the bigger picture.
I conduct multidisciplinary cancer research studying the function of regulatory RNAs — more specifically long noncoding RNAs (lncRNAs), which are RNAs that do not code for protein. To better understand how these RNAs promote metastatic cancer, I not only study the RNA itself but how RNA works with DNA, protein and other forms of RNA in the cell. This is exciting because I get to integrate many areas of science including genomics, genetics, biochemistry, epigenetics, and molecular and cell biology.
I also recently received an NIH/NCI K22 Transition Career Development Award to Promote Diversity (K22) to start my own lab. This grant will help me continue my research to better understand lncRNAs in metastatic colorectal cancer.
I see myself as a “scientist mom.” Many women scientists think you can’t have a life outside of science. Many younger women scientists are afraid they have to choose one or the other. There’s pressure to get that paper published and get grants, and you’re constantly working. There’s no end to research. It can be overwhelming. But you can do both; you need a lot of support!
I grew up in a Hispanic culture, so I have a passion for promoting diversity and STEM.
At Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, I participated in the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) two-year fellowship program that focuses on increasing the number of researchers among groups underrepresented in biomedical research. People at Mayo embraced my diversity, and I felt welcomed and valued. My diversity work began when I helped to develop the Mayo Clinic Diversity in Education blog.
At Washington University, I have continued to pursue this passion. I participated in the student prep program for underrepresented undergraduate and post-baccalaureate students and have taught a graduate school preparation course for six years. Our goal was to help undergraduate students apply and get accepted to medical or graduate school. As faculty, I serve as co-chair of the Department of Medicine Trainee Inclusion and Cultural Awareness Task Force. We are finding ways to promote, recruit and retain diverse trainees in our department. Because the numbers of underrepresented minorities in science are small, we are in need of mentorship and support so we can be successful. We are tackling this by creating a mentorship program for trainees. I truly believe that diverse perspectives improve research.
I want to translate genome-based discoveries into the clinic and create personalized treatment for patients. This will be through my research studying RNAs with the hope of targeting them in the future as new therapies. I also enjoy testing advanced technologies to better understand how RNA, DNA and protein work together. I love collaborating with others, mentoring and advising. I can’t wait to lead the next generation of scientists and help them pursue their goals.
Find one or more great mentors or advisers. Science is hard. Let them help and encourage you and reassure you that things will be OK. Also, get exposed to as many fields and disciplines as you can. It’s always beneficial to be multi-, intra- and cross-disciplinary. Lastly, love what you do, and enjoy doing it every day. If it doesn’t meet your expectations, it’s not the end of the world. Try something else; there are many avenues and career paths you can pursue.
I love spending time with my husband and two kids — a 5-year-old son and an 8-month-old daughter. We enjoy traveling and trying new things
I also volunteer at Beyond Housing, a local organization that helps families with housing, education, health and employment. My focus has been on the needs of the youth. I grew up in a low economic area. In elementary school, a teacher, Miss O’Brien, saw something in me. She encouraged me to apply to a multilingual program at a magnet middle school and high school that were outside of my community. The schools pushed their students to go to college, which was my turning point. I found my path and got exposed to new careers and got a higher level education. Because of that, the world is my playground now. Many kids don’t know that’s a possibility. I now aim to help kids who come from similar backgrounds as mine to find their paths.
See past New Chapter stories here.