For Jessica (Jess) Maung, a second year Ph.D. student in the Molecular and Integrative Physiology (MIP) department, growing up as a first-generation American was not easy. Raised by Southeast Asian immigrant parents in Portland, Oregon, Jess attempted to straddle her Asian heritage and American identity. As the oldest child and native English speaker, she had to “step up and help navigate life” for her family, including “mediating challenges related to financial instability, racism, and a tumultuous home life.”
Jess credits her role as the family spokesperson with seeding her curiosity and problem-solving skills. Her interest in science stems from a similarly personal place.
“My family’s health was impacted by our diet and lack of access to nutritious and fresh food,” Jess says. “I noticed this same pattern in my neighbors, and became cognizant of the high prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in my community. I developed an interest in the relationship between one’s environment and health.”
Cultivating a passion for translational science
This interest, coupled with her innate drive and curiosity, motivated Jess to pursue scientific research as an undergraduate at Union College in New York. There, she investigated how ingredients in chemical sunscreens break down under UV radiation. She focused on two compounds that, upon degradation, bleach coral reefs and may disrupt the endocrine system.
“I was interested in how and why these sunscreens were posing a threat to ecosystems and humans,” she notes.
Jess was especially captivated by the translational aspects of her research. She gained an even greater appreciation for the power of translational science, particularly as it relates to human metabolism and physiology, after working for two years as a Research Assistant at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where she interrogated the link between obesity and asthma. In 2020, she decided to take the next step in her education and apply to graduate school.
“I wanted to understand the foundation of human physiology and how it goes wrong in metabolic diseases,” she says. This desire ultimately brought her to the MIP department here at U-M.