Outstanding grad eyes career in public health

Jessica Lutz was named the Outstanding Graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences for the spring 2013 commencement.

Author of two honors theses, in linguistics and microbiology, hopes well-rounded education will prepare her for life-saving work

By Clint Talbott

Some people ask Jessica Lutz why she decided to write not one but two honors theses—in two completely different disciplines—before graduating with honors this spring from the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Usually they look at me like I’m insane. I wasn’t insane when I started, but I’m not sure if I can speak to my sanity now,” Lutz told fellow honors graduates in May.

“I’m sure my story isn’t very different from everyone else here,” she added. “I was passionate about a project, and I happened to have two. It’s that intellectual curiosity that spurred every student in this room to complete a thesis.”

But unlike every other honors graduate in the room, Lutz had the distinction of having been named the Outstanding Graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences for the spring 2013 commencement.

Lutz graduated summa cum laude, majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and minoring in linguistics. She was one of 209 honors graduates in a class of 4,687.

As she told her fellow honors graduates, high achievers can feel like the “smartest person in the room” at times.

“That can be a pretty lonely place,” she added. “I’ve heard people say that if you’re the smartest person in the room, go find another room and surround yourself with people more intelligent than you are. But if I have learned anything in the past four years, from completing projects in completely different disciplines, it would be not to do that.”

Exposure to diversity generates personal and intellectual growth, she said.

“Learning to recognize the value of the opinions of people around me, especially those different from my own, was an experience that will influence my life much more than the memorization of countless biochemical pathways or the analysis of endless consonant sounds.”

Recently, she spoke with Dean Steven Leigh about her work and budding career.

Her honors thesis in linguistics analyzed how people who are native Mandarin Chinese speakers produce and perceive “plosive” sounds—like “t,” “d,” “p,” “b,” “k” and “g”—at the end of words. These are common sounds in English but rare in Mandarin.

Lutz designed and conducted two original experiments that “yielded interesting and novel results that bring real depth to the study of second-language speech,” Rebecca Scarborough, assistant professor of linguistics, wrote of Lutz’s work.

“Jessica shows a sophistication and understanding of the process and product of research that is very rarely seen at the undergraduate level and is uncommon even among master’s-level students,” Scarborough added.

Lutz acknowledges that linguistics might seem “strange” to those who know little about the discipline. “I love English, and I think I would have been an English major until I figured out that there was a science to language, which is linguistics.”

Lutz is interested in second-language acquisition, and she observed that her thesis, which is a theoretical study of second-language acquisition, is a small portion of a relatively small discipline.

Meanwhile, Lutz said she knew from her freshman year she wanted to work in a microbiology lab. She took an immunology class in her junior year, and she “loved virology so much” that she joined a lab on the CU School of Medicine campus in Denver.

In the lab of Linda van Dyk, associate professor of microbiology at the School of Medicine, Lutz began by “helping out” at first. “I ended up on a project, and I got to write a thesis out of it.”

That thesis has been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, and Lutz is second author; it is uncommon for undergraduates to co-author peer-reviewed journal articles. The research probes microRNAs in herpes-virus genomes, whose role in the transmission of the herpes virus is not fully clear.

“There’s still very little known about these microRNAs in particular,” Lutz observed. The fact that microRNAs exist in viruses was not even known until the early 2000s, she added.

Lutz is continuing to work at the van Dyk lab through the summer but is beginning a master’s in public health program at the University of Southern California this fall.

While a CU-Boulder student, Lutz also worked in Lesotho, a nation completely surrounded by South Africa. Lutz helped edit public-health grant applications for projects such as HIV-AIDS tracking.

Lutz described her trip to Lesotho last year, as “amazing,” adding: “I realized that even though I’ve always kind of been on track to get a Ph.D. in virology, public health is what I want to do.”

Because she knows a lot about social science, linguistics and virology, “I can expand that into knowledge of disease,” she said. “And because of being well-rounded in that sense, that could really help, because public health is a really broad field. It combines a lot of things: science and social science.”

After finishing her two-year MPH program, she might pursue an M.D.-Ph.D. program.

“Everyone here is capable of accomplishing great things,” Lutz told fellow honors graduates in May. “My hope is that, in the future, we can all remain tenacious enough to achieve and humble enough to learn.”

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