Northwestern University graduate student and Chemistry of Life Processes Institute trainee Jennifer Rachel Ferrer will finish her PhD tomorrow as a joint student of Drs. Chad Mirkin (chemistry), and Jason Wertheim (surgery). She will present her research on how spherical nucleic acids, which are being investigated as new drug delivery systems, localize in the body. Her findings will inform design of SNAs to target specific tissues and cells for potential therapies. The daughter of immigrant parents and the first in her family to receive a doctorate, Ferrer’s thesis defense marks the culmination of years of bench work.  Her graduate school years have also included advocating for women in STEM, rock climbing, and finding her community on campus.

Jen had already begun to set up dual mentorship in chemistry and biology before learning about the dual mentor requirement of the NIH-funded CLP T32 Predoctoral Training Program. She had joined a lab in Evanston focusing on chemistry, and one on the Chicago campus that emphasized tissue engineering and biology.

“The CLP Training Program was exactly what I had wanted for myself in grad school, as I was already thinking along that chemistry-biology interface,” said Ferrer. “It was great to see that there was a program here that emphasizes the transdisciplinary nature of the research we do here at Northwestern that leads to the development of different therapeutics and diagnostic tools that might one day help and treat patients.”

In addition to lab work and her participation in the CLP Training Program, Ferrer wanted to work to empower other women and was a fellow at the Center for Leadership. She created a project at the end of her fellowship, alongside three other women who were members of her leadership trainee cohort, to revive Northwestern’s chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which was no longer in existence.

The newly revived AAUW chapter at Northwestern empowers women to pursue their education through AAUW fellowships, provides interactive workshops on salary negotiation, as well as leadership training. She says that her time as a graduate student has bled into normal life, and that now, everything becomes a scientific question for which she creates hypotheses.

“I’ve noticed at conferences and in interactions at career panels, there isn’t a lot of representation at the top. There aren’t a lot of women, or people of color. Everything becomes a hypothesis, or an experiment to me now, so I ask the question why is that? How do I get there? Once I have those answers, how do I translate that back to the next generation?”

As she worked to empower other women and on her research, Ferrer says her rock-climbing hobby helped her find balance within her life, and that she became a stronger student and found community in climbing gyms.

“Grad school was a new place and a totally new environment. You’re expected to be autonomous and come up with an interesting research question on your own and you’re not yet an expert, but by the end of it, well, you are,” said Ferrer. “There are going to be ups and downs all along the way, and I think that rock climbing has helped me become more resilient in school and that all the grad school failures have helped me become a more resilient climber and person.”

Ferrer has accepted a position as a research analyst with drug development startup Monopar Therapeutics, an opportunity that arose through an interaction with CLP Executive Advisory Board member Chandler Robinson, CEO of the biotech company.  While she will no longer be working at the bench, “I’m excited to expand my knowledge of the drug-development space, but still very much be connected to the science part of it,” said Ferrer.

When reflecting on her time at Northwestern, Ferrer focuses primarily on the communities she has found across campus.

“When I was writing the acknowledgements section of my thesis, it just kept going and going. On one hand, I thought this is long, but on the other, it would be a disservice if I didn’t thank all of these people because they have all been integral to my development as a scientist and a more mature person.”

Jennifer defended her thesis on June 19, 2019.

Check out her rock climbing instagram: @coconutandcantaloupe

by Lydia Rivers