Jessica Octavio is an undergraduate student at San Diego State University where she is pursuing her B.S. in Microbiology. She is currently researching the microbial and viral communities associated with cystic fibrosis. Outside of the lab, she loves art, exercise, travel, and enjoying nature. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
Name: Jessica Octavio
Company: The Viral Information Institute at SDSU
Industry: Microbiology, Viral Ecology, Biotechnology, and Pharmaceutics
SHEroines: Being a teenager can be hard, let alone being a teenager in a foreign country, taken thousands of miles away from the familiarity of your friends, family, and native culture. In spite of it all, my mom handled the challenge with grace and persistence. At just sixteen years old, she entered the workforce while enrolled as a full-time college student, and since then she has been serving pediatric cancer patients and their families as a registered nurse. Seeing my mom extend the love she gives to our own family to those affected by pediatric cancer ignited my own passion for helping others and exploring solutions to terminal illnesses.
Tell us about yourself: who are you, where are you from, what do you do?
I’m Jessica Octavio! I’m from Orange County, California, born and raised, but currently, I’m attending San Diego State University to study Microbiology with an emphasis in Clinical Laboratory Science and minor in Chemistry. Outside of my classes, I’m conducting research on bacteriophage therapy for cystic fibrosis patients. More specifically, I’m a phage hunter, which is just a fancy way of saying that I look through soil and water to find viruses that will one day treat bacterial infections.
As much as I love science, I’m also big on community service both abroad and locally.
As much as I love science, I’m also big on community service both abroad and locally. This past year, I’ve been active in promoting public health, education, and sanitation in rural areas of Mexico, and I look forward to being more involved in uplifting San Diego’s growing community of women scientists.
What was your path to becoming a SHE in STEM? Which area of STEM are you a part of?
Being a curious, nerdy kid easily lent itself onto a path of inquiry and exploration that only STEM could provide. I was all about popular science, exploring nature, and science documentaries. As a high school student, I developed my passion for research and preserving biodiversity while doing independent research projects for IB Bio, and I made baby steps into the world of microbial ecology. At age sixteen, I had the opportunity to be a high school fellow at the UC Irvine Cancer Research Institute, where I engineered contact-dependent growth inhibition systems to combat cancer. My time studying cancer inspired me to throw myself into health science as both an advocate for cancer awareness and a scientist. Currently, I am fortunate to have the opportunity enough to pursue my interests in microbial ecology, nature conservation, and human disease as a researcher at my university, studying how microbial interactions influence disease in both cystic fibrosis patients and coral reef ecosystems.
What about being a SHE in STEM brings you the most joy?
Academia is really one of the only fields I can think of in which you can spend your entire career diving into any topic of your choice. As much as STEM can be concrete and solution-oriented, it also must be creative and exploratory. Many academics enjoy finding their niche in the scientific community and become experts in a field that matters to them, and that energy radiates in how they engage others in their work. At every professional and academic level, I see people in STEM make sacrifices because they’re invested in their own long-term growth, as well as in the advancement of societal knowledge. It’s empowering to know that such dedicated people are in my corner, and I have the privilege of being able to collaborate with them and learn from them.
As much as STEM can be concrete and solution-oriented, it also must be creative and exploratory.
What is the most challenging part of being a SHE in STEM?
I’m young, a minority, and new to the field. When my colleagues and superiors question what I bring to the table, I am the only person who can truly advocate for myself. Before I need to convince others that my ideas matter, I have to convince myself that my ideas matter. I’m often the first person to think that I have nothing to contribute to a group, but everyday, I make the effort to remind myself that I’m capable, I’m valuable, and I still have a ton of untapped potential.
Sharing my triumphs and struggles with other women in STEM has been such a fun way to grow into myself, and it’s illustrated to me the value of other people’s perspectives and experiences.
Sharing my triumphs and struggles with other women in STEM has been such a fun way to grow into myself, and it’s illustrated to me the value of other people’s perspectives and experiences. The support system of women around me has prepared me to succeed in a system primarily designed for men. The solidarity within my community inspires me to continue to make a place for myself in my field and help other women overcome disadvantages such as unequal pay, the maternity leave resume gap, and under-representation.
What’s the professional achievement that makes you the most proud?
It’s so fulfilling to see when my work fits into some greater scheme, a collective effort made by an entire scientific community. The more I get to collaborate with others in the field, the more I realize that I’m running alongside a set of like-minded people. Whether I’m with classmates who also don’t get chemistry or scholars who share my peculiar obsession with bacteriophage, I take pride in knowing I’m a part of STEM culture.
I’m young, a minority, and new to the field. When my colleagues and superiors question what I bring to the table, I am the only person who can truly advocate for myself.
What, and who, has motivated you the most in your journey as a SHE in STEM?
I had an amazing high school biology teacher. Even though I appreciate how he held us at a higher standard and taught us to the best of his ability, the biggest gift he gave me and my peers the gift of being able to look at the world with a sense of marvel and curiosity that motivated me to participate in the scientific community. Mr. Bushman gave me the tools to learn about the ecology of my local area, attend public lectures to connect with scientists around me, and find a group of long-term friends who shared my goals and interests.
If you could go back in time and offer yourself sixty seconds of advice, what would you say?
1) You will discover that the most successful people aren’t necessarily the ones who are insanely gifted or who had a head start. A lot of people have to buckle down and grind to get where they wanna be. You’ll have to, too.
2) There is no final destination. No matter where you are in your studies or professional life, you might never feel like you’ve “made it”. So with that in mind, enjoy growing! The lessons you learn along the way and the experiences you have are valuable even if you think they don’t directly relate to your next step in life. Everything you’ve been and everything you are now are making you what you will become in the future. Celebrate the process of becoming. You’ll never be able to be proud of future you, so be proud of yourself now.
3) Don’t assume that you already know what your path is or what’s best for you. With the right mindset, you’ll learn things you’d never expected to learn and find doors you didn’t know were open.
If you could give any advice to young women considering a path in STEM, what would you say?
Make sure you have concrete goals while you’re pursuing an education in STEM, and try your best to explore your options and find out what you really want (and why you want it). STEM can be a lot of work, and it’s not something you want to go into blindly. A STEM degree or post-baccalaureate education is not some golden ticket to a lucrative job and not necessarily the path that fits best for you. There are a billion reasons to love STEM and tons of exciting career opportunities to choose from, so as long as you find where you want to be, nothing can stop you from getting there. Your degree will be much more valuable if you supplement it with impactful experiences that build your narrative as a professional.
Who are some other SHEs in STEM to watch?
I have huge respect for Areeta Wong! She’s a computer science student at UC Irvine who’s shown exceptional promise as a young woman in STEM, and she continues to commit herself to encouraging girls to pursue science. I look forward to see how she will make strides in technology and STEM outreach.
Another amazing woman championing for other women in science is Jill Meyers. When she visited my campus, I finally saw firsthand the importance for girls in STEM to have female role models and mentors. She’s been setting the bar for excellence in STEM for decades as an Air Force veteran, engineer, aviation management consultant, public speaker, and mentor. Her work with Dream Soar, Inc., and her other outreach efforts have had a profound impact on the community of women in aviation and engineering, and I could only hope to open doors for the next generation of women like she has for my generation.
What’s the most exciting thing happening in STEM?
I can’t pick just one! My blanket answer would probably be the interdisciplinary collaboration required to keep STEM moving forward. In my current lab, I’ve learned that as a scientist, I stand on the shoulders of mathematicians, computer scientists, and engineers who make my work possible, and this truth applies to everyone else in STEM. I’m looking forward to see how artificial intelligence and CRISPR/Cas9 unfold in our everyday lives. Not only will these technologies completely revolutionize personalized healthcare, but they’ll challenge us to define our ethical values, especially in terms of how we will protect big data and address congenital disorders.
Not only will these technologies completely revolutionize personalized healthcare, but they’ll challenge us to define our ethical values, especially in terms of how we will protect big data and address congenital disorders.
What are some resources for SHEs to learn more about your field?
This subreddit is perfect for those interested in medical laboratory scientists / clinical laboratory scientists!
Khan Academy:How could you not love Sal’s silky, smooth voice explaining literally everything you could ever wonder about? Khan Academy’s Health & Medicine courses really opened up the life sciences for me in a palatable, interesting way.
MIT OpenCourseWare: Imagine being able to learn at your own pace with all of the resources of an elite university at your disposal! I absolutely love open courseware materials and their potential to facilitate a culture of lifelong learning.