From ‘Survivor’ to Explorer

Magdia De Jesus, front row center, with a cohort of her School of Public Health students.

ALBANY, N.Y. — Magdia De Jesus always knew she wanted to be a scientist after falling in love with the discipline at age nine. The assistant professor of Biomedical Sciences in the School of Public Health now hopes to convey that same lifelong passion to her students, as well as some lessons learned along the way.

Humble Beginnings

A Hispanic female who grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem, her parents were always very supportive of education because they knew it would help her to achieve more than they could.

De Jesus and her sister became their family’s first college graduates. She earned a bachelor’s in biology with a minor in sociology from NYU; completed a post-bac program at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine; and received a master’s and Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“I think that some students assume that I was privileged since I was trained very well,” said De Jesus. “I think a lot of students are very shocked when I tell them, ‘I grew up in the hood.’ I just wish that some of them would ask for help. I don’t discriminate. I think that I’m a survivor and I understand where they are coming from.”

After winning a prestigious U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fellowship, she joined the Wadsworth Center and conducted work in clinical bacteriology under the mentorship of Kim Musser. She then was encouraged by Biomedical Sciences Associate Professor Nicholas Mantis to write a grant based on her ongoing research in mucosal immunology.

Gut Feelings

Her proposal resulted in a three-year fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It was there where she worked to marry two disciplines: mycology and the fungal pathogenesis, combined with mucosal immunology of the intestine and a study of how the intestine recognizes fungal-derived vaccine-delivery vehicles.

Now at her lab in UAlbany, she focuses on understanding how the gut recognizes all sorts of microbes, specifically fungi. Part of this involves studying how fungi communicate with the gut and the gut communicates with fungi, as well as how can we better deliver vaccines via the oral mucosa.

“Most vaccines are injected, right? That hurts, causing a low patient compliance because people are afraid of injections,” said De Jesus.

“What if most of our vaccines were given like the polio vaccine? A few drops in your mouth and that’s it. Then, we can study these little spheres and, if we can manipulate them, we can probably load a therapeutic in there and place it within the intestinal mucosa — and that’s the beginning of an oral vaccine.”

Challenges Facing Young Scientists

Becoming a scientist is a long process and often requires sacrifices. De Jesus believes that the scientific community needs to take a stronger role in motivating young researchers to stay on track.

In addition, academic mentors need to present a wide range of options beyond academia to these students. In her lab, she encourages students to follow their passion, whether it’s in academia, basic science and/or medicine.

“I’m not just restricting my students to academic science. I want them to learn and pick up as many skills as they can in my laboratory and move on,” said De Jesus.

There are so many emerging public health issues now for students to explore: Zika, newborn screening for genetic conditions, climate change and antibiotic resistance, as well as whatever virus du jour is waiting around the corner. De Jesus believes that the School of Public Health offers a great training ground for this via the classroom, the lab, internships and the school’s partnership with the Department of Health.

“After the March for Science, people are now just starting to understand what scientists do, because we’re actually now stepping out of the shadows and telling people in a very easy way to understand what we do and why it’s important,” said De Jesus.

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Magdia De Jesus’s story is part of a yearlong series featuring various members of the SPH faculty and their commitment to the field of public health.

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