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Jessica Lewis: Proteins Changing Her Perspective

The fun lies in the discovery.
Jessica Lewis

Jessica Lewis (MMBIO ’24) sits across the table from one of her many undergraduate researchers, a piece of paper between them. On it, she’s sketched a rough image of a protein structure that sits on the surface of the phages—viruses that could offer treatment alternatives to antibiotic-resistant superbugs. They’ve been going back and forth for several minutes, trying to get on the same page. As she watches, the student’s eyes widen with realization. It finally clicks for her how this new experiment connects to their overall question of how phages attach and bind to their hosts. Lewis grins: these student mentoring experiences are one of the best parts of her PhD. “Anyone can do an experiment,” she says. “But it's another thing to actually understand why we’re doing it.”

A light-skinned woman with waist length light brown hair sits in a darkened lab looking down on the sample plate in her hands, clad in blue gloves, which is lit from below.
Lewis uses a light box to examine bacteriophages (phages) growing in a petri dish. She studies how phages can be used to selectively target and eliminate bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and other drugs—a practice known as phage therapy.
Photo by Nicholas Rex

Lewis didn’t immediately jump into graduate school. After receiving her undergraduate in biotechnology, she worked for several years as a lab analyst doing clean room tests. But she wanted to do more exploring and discovery than that industry work offered her. While she can appreciate the medical applications of her current work, she adds, “I really just love science. I love understanding how things work, [and] I really like things at the structural level: seeing what makes up these proteins, what interactions actually take place or could take place to make this [attachment] happen. It's not just the genes, but the proteins that are behind it, that are physically interacting and triggering things. I think it's fascinating.”

Molecular biology may not seem like the most natural fit for Lewis, being a visual learner. “You can have just a clear vial and [know] this has 1010 phage in it, but I don't see any of them,” she describes. “But . . . it's really the structural aspects that have brought it to life for me.” Lewis leans into her strengths by using a computer modeling program to see the specific protein parts that play a key role in virus infections. As she’s taught her students, the details only matter as much as you can connect them back to the big picture.

A light-skinned woman with long light brown hair pulled over her right shoulder smiles as she stands in front of a window reflecting snow-covered mountains.
Photo by Nicholas Rex

In the same way, Lewis has learned how precious the individuals are in her lab. Her mentor, Dr. Bill McCleary, models an environment where supporting the researchers is just as important as the science. When she first started her program, Lewis felt like an out-of-place novice. But Dr. McCleary “was exactly who I needed,” she says. “He's learned how to be a scientist, and he uses his skills to serve and help others to do the same. . . That's something that I definitely want to take with me: not forgetting where I was when I started and the support he gave me to help me be who I am today as a researcher.” Dr. McCleary has been quick to hand Lewis the reins and show her through her own efforts that she’s capable of more than she thinks. Looking back, Lewis can see how having someone in your corner makes all the difference in a scientist’s ability to reach their potential.

Sometimes it was easy for Lewis to sacrifice her well-being and relationships for the sake of her work. She could spend hours in the lab running experiments, well after everyone else had gone home. When she found out she was pregnant, she told Dr. McCleary she’d be back after Thanksgiving, within two months of giving birth. Dr. McCleary informed her that he’d see her in January. Lewis remembers, “It's about the science, but at that moment, he cared about me, and he cared about my family, and he cared about my ability to be with my family and to bond with my daughter, during a time when I really, really needed it . . . He cared more about me than he cared about getting the research done.”

You need to get the experiments done at the end of the day, but if you can't function, it's not going to happen.

Those experiences help her recognize that she must take care of herself and her family in order to be a good scientist. She’s learning to prioritize her emotional and physical health at home so that she’s ready to explore her phages when she steps into her lab. Lewis says, “You need to get the experiments done at the end of the day, but if you can't function, it's not going to happen. Or if it does happen, it's not going to be done well, and it will just have to be redone.” Just like the structure of the protein determines how well a virus can bind to its host, how a scientist structures her life determines how well she can do her work.

At table level, there is a pair of hands in blue gloves holding a sample plate illuminated from a light below it.
Photo by Nicholas Rex

Lewis’ enthusiasm for her studies is infectious. It’s clear that while the research requires significant time and energy, she’s in it for the sheer joy of the experience. “The fun lies in the discovery,” she says. “In sitting at the bench and just trying to figure out a question that nobody’s figured out before. . . No matter how small the contribution is, just being able to sit and enjoy the time at the bench [is] something that I’ve grown to love.”

She is still aware of how recently she was that first-year student at square one. It’s mentorship opportunities with younger students that allow her to share her passion and look back on how far she’s come. They’re a chance for her to reflect on the support she’s had from her mentors over the years and give back to students who stand where she once did. “You need someone who believes in you,” she advises. “But you also have to believe in yourself, that you can do hard things. You can!”