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Grad Student Q&A: Jessica Jin

Profiles- - By Doug Rosso

As a Houston native and an undergrad at Texas A&M — “a good enough distance for independence but still close to mom’s cooking” – Jessica Jin majored in chemical engineering. Her mother is an epidemiologist and her father is an engineer, so science was in the works, although she resisted it at first and planned instead on becoming an entrepreneur. Today, Jin is a second-year graduate student in the Jacobs Group, where she enjoys the challenge of applying critical thinking skills to the demands of theoretical chemistry.

So, you resisted the STEM field at first?

It’s a common Asian-American experience, where your parents are really good at STEM and are doctors and engineers. So, I think I ended up being really rebellious. I kept telling myself that I hated calculus because I felt like it would just fit me into the stereotype of being good at math. But at one point during my senior year in high school, something began to change. I remember doing some deep reflection that I had never done previously and I was just like, maybe I’ll give this subject a chance. Then once I just sat down and made friends with math, it came to life for me.

Graduate student Jessica Jin
Second-year graduate student Jessica Jin, a member of the Jacobs Group.
Photo by C. Todd Reichart

Why chemistry?

I took organic chemistry my sophomore year and everyone was just dreading orgo. But it kind of attracted me because of the challenge. I was absorbed in drawing molecular structures and writing out mechanisms on the chalkboard. It was when I took p-chem in my junior year, which required a lot of abstract thinking, that completely challenged my fundamental assumptions about chemistry and my reliance on intuition for grasping ideas. I was hearing things that were just so perplexing that I couldn’t rely on intuition anymore. I had to think in a completely different way.

Name one important skill for grad school…

Learning how to think critically is the most transformational thing you can do. It’s definitely something I’ve grown into a lot especially over the last year. In the Jacobs Group, we have these bi-weekly roundtable discussions on recently published papers. When I was called to host, it was easy to get overwhelmed: how do I succinctly summarize and present this paper? I remember chatting with my dad about it. He said, “Just ask yourself a few questions: what are they doing, why are they doing it, what’s the potential impact, and what are the key takeaways?” And I was like, c’mon dad, I’m doing a Ph.D. here. But he was right. I wouldn’t have thought there would be anything to gain from doing something that simple. It framed the problem, gave me the big picture, and helped me to prioritize.

Had you always planned on grad school?

Not really. I had a one-semester co-op and two summer internships and was planning to continue with a full-time position. Then the pandemic hit. I knew this was my chance to try something completely different. Deep down I had always wanted to keep diving into these questions that I felt I had just scratched the surface on. My p-chem professor encouraged me to apply for top Ph.D. programs, and here I am! I took a leap of faith and I couldn’t be happier.

What drew you to the Jacobs Group?

I was hearing about this hot field of biomolecular condensates and how the hub of this interdisciplinary field is really at Princeton. It’s exciting because it upends what we learn in biology. The popular schematic is a crowded cell with organelles bound by membranes, and they each do their own little thing and carry out the cell’s function. But what was found out was that a lot of these compartmentalized organelles don’t actually have membranes. They’re actually drops, and they hold themselves together and carry out these functions for the cell. That discovery opened up a whole bunch of research in this area. And I attended a couple of seminars that William Jacobs gave last fall in which he was talking about the opportunities in theory and computation in this field, and it just seemed so clear that there was so much here to challenge our assumptions.

What are you working on now?

Picture this: these liquid droplets, these organelles, form primarily by a mechanism called liquid-liquid phase separation, in which you have droplets spontaneously assembling and disassembling. When you imagine these droplets spontaneously forming from a big blob, you’d naturally think it would be messy and random. But what’s enigmatic is that you have the same number of droplets forming from a megadroplet each time. That is just one of the mysteries we’re uncovering right now through our work using computational tools: deriving theoretic principles for these phase-separating systems that can apply pretty broadly to a lot of biological phenomena.

Do you like the lab culture?

I love coming to Frick every day. I can’t believe I’m getting paid to come here to learn and exchange ideas. And my group is fantastic. The Jacobs Group is pretty small—everyone works independently on different projects, so when it’s time to come together and exchange ideas, we can share our different perspectives and bounce ideas back and forth. Will is a fantastic advisor. He makes the time every week to review our results and even help us debug. It’s awesome to be part of his team.

What advice would you give to new grad students?

The most transformative thing I’m learning to do is to take ownership. As an undergrad, I was used to the mindset that I just needed to do enough to get a good grade. But in grad school, the research is mine and the learning is mine, and so I’m going to leverage all the resources I can because the outcome is mine, too. Taking an ownership mentality leads to really positive outcomes. It’s a shift that the earlier done, the better.

How do you maximize your time at Princeton?

The word that comes to mind is continuous improvement. Princeton provides great opportunities for this. Every day I just focus on making a 1% improvement in myself. If I compare myself today to myself yesterday and I’ve made an improvement, then I feel good about that. Then, I know I’m heading in the right direction.