Points of Blue: Jessica Maung

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.

Finding community and support at the University of Michigan

Jess’s choice to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan was a multi-faceted one.

“I chose the University of Michigan for its rigorous biomedical science research, world-class facilities, supportive faculty, and strong sense of community,” she says.

The ability to pursue her scientific interests in an encouraging environment that prioritizes student well-being was particularly attractive.

“OGPS and PIBS are committed to student support, allowing flexibility for students to experience a scientific journey that is authentic to them,” Jess notes.

In addition to the broad U-M community, Jess was drawn to the strong training environment and close-knit community within the MIP department. She feels especially fortunate to be training with Dr. Ormond MacDougald, an investigator highly awarded for his mentoring efforts and scientific accomplishments.

“Dr. MacDougald provides a healthy training environment focused on equity among colleagues,” Jess says. “He has given me the confidence to become my own advocate, especially in a system that is oppressive and difficult to navigate as a woman of color. Dr. MacDougald has also taught me the importance of scientific honesty and transparency, while encouraging me to harness my creativity and freedom in the lab.”

Dr. MacDougald is equally grateful for the opportunity to mentor Jess as she comes into her own as a scientist.

“I feel honored to be involved in Jess’s professional development,” he says. “She is a smart, hard-working young scientist with a very bright future ahead of her.”

Investigating the molecular basis of lipodystrophy

Jess’s fascination with metabolic disease and translational science forms the backbone of her work in the MacDougald lab. Her research focuses on lipodystrophy, a disease characterized by the progressive loss of adipose (i.e., fat) tissue during adolescence.

“Lipodystrophy is the opposite of obesity, which is characterized by excess adipose tissue, but is similarly accompanied by complications including atypical diabetes, fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease,” Jess explains.

While there are several lipodystrophies, the most common type, abbreviated FPLD2, results from a mutation in the gene encoding the lamin A/C protein. Lamin A/C influences the shape and stability of cell nuclei and regulates gene expression, among other functions. However, the role of lamin A/C in adipocytes (fat cells) is still unknown. Using cell culture and mouse models of FPLD2, Jess is studying how loss of lamin A/C functions lead to adipose tissue loss. Such knowledge could aid in the development of therapies for lipodystrophy.

“Current therapeutics treat metabolic complications associated with FPLD2, but do not address the underlying cause of adipose tissue loss,” she notes. “My research is highly translatable to future treatments for FPLD2 patients.”

Engaging in science advocacy and communication

Outside of the lab, Jess is a dedicated science advocate and activist. Her experiences growing up as a first-generation American and woman of color fostered a passion for lifting and amplifying voices of marginalized communities, particularly in science. As a part of the U-M Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Taskforce, she “aims to push the needle forward within University of Michigan’s biomedical research culture, hosting data-driven events with interactive facilitation to challenge preconceived notions and biases within the scientific community.”

In addition, Jess strives to make science accessible and approachable for non-scientists.

“It is common for many immigrants and people of color to have a distrust in science and the medical establishment. I saw this same fear reflected in my mom, which is part of my interest in science policy and communication.”

To that end, Jess serves as the secretary for Engaging Scientists in Policy and Advocacy (ESPA), a student organization committed to training scientists in policy, advocacy, and communication. She also practices her communication skills as a member of the editorial board for the MIP department’s annual newsletter, where she “highlights current research, alumni, and department accomplishments through written articles for both scientists and the general public.”

Of course, Jess is not about work with no play. When she’s not conducting research or advocating for and communicating science, she enjoys playing tennis, hiking, and practicing crocheting– her new pandemic hobby. She can also be found exploring her own and other cultures through food, likely with a camera in hand so she can document her adventures on her food Instagram page (@jessindulges).

Because we are victors (awards and accolades)

  • 2021 – 2022 Organogenesis Training Program, NIH T-32-HD007505, Center for Cell Plasticity and Organ Design, University of Michigan Medical School

  • 2021 Bean Fellowship for Academic Excellence, Dept. of Molecular & Integrative Physiology, University of Michigan Medical School

  • 2021 Rackham Pre-Candidate Graduate Student Research Grant, University of Michigan

  • 2018 Kurt W. Hillig Biochemistry Award, Union College

  • 2018 – Phi Beta Kappa Society

  • 2018 – Omicron Delta Kappa: The National Leadership Honor Society

  • 2018 Order of the Lapis: Sigma Delta Tau’s Academic Honor Society

  • 2016 – Sigma Xi: The Scientific Research Honor Society

  • 2015 – 2018 Dean’s List, Union College

  • 2015 – 2017 Student Research Grant(s), Union College

  • 2015, 2017 Presidential Green Grant(s), Union College