Dr. Janet Rogers
Edinboro University senior Noelle Jurcak's years of careful attention to her biochemistry studies have earned her a spot in her first choice of graduate programs, the Graduate Training Program in Cell and Molecular Medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
"It is a perfect fit for the type of translational biomedical research that I am interested in pursuing," Jurcak said. "It fits into my long-term plans because I will obtain my Ph.D. in Cellular and Molecular Medicine researching at a level that prepares for direct understanding, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of human disease."
She'll begin the prestigious program, which has an average length of five years, on Aug. 20. In the meantime, she'll be wrapping up her undergraduate studies and looking forward to graduation.
When Jurcak dons her cap and gown in May, a Latin honors stole – gold, for summa cum laude – and the gold cord of the university's Dr. Robert C. Weber Honors Program will accent the robe's basic black.
It will be the last and most symbolic of many uniforms the Burton, Ohio, native has worn during her four years at EU.
Jurcak is a familiar sight to campus visitors in the bold red jacket of the Highland Ambassadors. As a member of the Edinboro service organization for three years, she has been a greeter, tour guide and all-around promoter of the university.
Running shoes, too, have been a well-worn part of the scholar-athlete's wardrobe as a member of the women's track and cross country teams.
But it's an iconic white lab coat that has become her uniform of choice, a perfect fit for a Biochemistry major with minors in Biology and Mathematics who aims to become a physician-scientist. Specifically, she aspires to work in the fields of pediatrics and pulmonary diseases, doing both direct patient care and research.
Toward that ambitious goal, she has worked hard for four years to achieve a nearly perfect cumulative grade point average in a demanding field while remaining active in the Honors Program and other co-curricular and extracurricular activities.
"Noelle has excelled academically not only because she is intelligent, but also because she applies herself," said Dr. Lisa Unico, chair of the EU Chemistry Department and an influential faculty mentor to Jurcak. "She pays attention to detail. She is hard-working and reliable. I am confident that she will excel in a research career."
For the last two summers, Jurcak has complemented her Edinboro course work with exceptional internships offered through the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF-REU).
Following her sophomore year in 2013, NSF-REU enabled her to work with the cystic fibrosis researchers at The University of Iowa. She spent her summer days in a laboratory working with cell cultures.
Last summer's research internship was with Hong Ji, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of Cincinnati's Department of Pediatrics who is exploring the link between pollution and asthma in children ages 5-18 who have asthma.
"I really like research. I'm not sure I'd be able to give it up – but I don't want to just be in a lab all day. I also like the patient interaction," said Jurcak, for whom her summer 2014 assignment working directly with patients as well as doing lab work was "a perfect blend."
"I got to spend time with patients, then go back to the lab, spin down their blood and take a look," she said.
After both of these research experiences, Jurcak gave presentations to faculty, administrators and students at the annual Chemistry Department Spaghetti Dinner, and her presentation of her 2013 poster was selected for an award at EU's Celebration of Scholarship.
"She was able to effectively communicate the background for these projects as well as her results to a diverse audience," Dr. Unico said. "Even the first- and second-year students understood and seemed to enjoy her talks."
Jurcak credits her success in landing these highly competitive internships to "a lot of nice letters of recommendation from my teachers" and considerable research online.
Before the summer of 2013, she applied to 18 locations and was accepted by two – The University of Iowa and Wake Forest University.
Twenty interns were selected that year from a pool of almost 1,000 applicants to assist with research at Iowa. At Cincinnati in 2014, 75 undergraduates were doing research internships, chosen from about 2,000 applicants.
"I felt prepared. That was something I had worried about," Jurcak said. At Cincinnati, many asked if she was a graduate student, "and one person thought I had been doing research for years. So, I felt really prepared."
That positive self-assessment was affirmed by the University of Cincinnati's Dr. Ji.
"She is one of the best students I have had, top 5% definitely," Dr. Ji said. "She works hard, is smart, learns very quickly, can work independently, and is a team player. She is applying to graduate schools, and I would highly recommend her."
Until word of her acceptance to Johns Hopkins arrived, Jurcak was still working out the details of what's next educationally. Although the pressure to make the correct next move was great, she took it in stride – in part because she knows she already made one astute educational decision by choosing Edinboro.
She said EU is "unusually friendly," and she likes the small class size and the opportunity to do research and other work with her professors. "The Chemistry Department professors are here all day, every day, and are extremely helpful."
Along with Dr. Unico, she singles out Dr. Naod Kebede as particularly influential.
"Dr. Kebede is one of the main reasons I switched from Biology to Biochemistry. Both he and Dr. Unico have helped me so much in deciding what I want to do and teaching me, just really encouraging me to go after the internships," she said.
Back when Jurcak was choosing a college for her undergraduate degree, her choice came down to EU vs. Ohio State. She now knows she chose the option that was the better fit.
"I felt I might be more comfortable at a smaller school," she said. "And I am. I never would have expected the last four years to turn out like they did, but it's been wonderful."