Graduate Jessica Marshall: Turning challenges into opportunities

Jessica Marshall in a lab wearing a white lab coat.

“I’ve been trying to follow what inspires curiosity in me and lean into challenges that help me grow.”  

Leaning into challenges is what made Jessica Marshall add chemistry as an additional major to her academic schedule, which already included a major in biomedical science and a minor in psychology. She said that after organic chemistry professor Edgar Civitello supported her through the difficult class and encouraged her to continue challenging herself, she became excited by the opportunities chemistry could bring her.  

Jessica Marshall holding her distinguished senior certificate.Working for the Pathogen and Microbiome Institute (PMI) is among the opportunities Marshall, who was selected as the distinguished senior for the College of the Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences, has been able to access during her time as an undergraduate student at NAU. She worked for the institute for three years as a research assistant to professor Dave Wagner and senior research scientist Carina Phillips, primarily studying the causative agents of plague and melioidosis. Her work included generating data on the transmission of human plague outbreaks, conducting flea DNA extractions to test for plague outbreaks in Flagstaff and developing tools and reagents for vaccine development.  

In fact, PMI was one of the main reasons Marshall chose to attend NAU when she started college.  

“I was so amazed at the opportunities given to undergraduate researchers and the high-level, hands-on work being conducted at NAU,” she said. “I decided to come here because I thought I’d be able to make meaningful contributions to research.” 

Marshall’s research experience is not limited to PMI. She also completed an internship at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, where she performed data collection with patients who had received intracranial surgical intervention for drug-resistant epilepsy as part of a clinical trial. She said the opportunity affirmed her passion for biomedical research and taught her how impactful clinical trials can be for patients.  

Adonna Rometo, associate chair of undergraduate affairs for the biological sciences department, said Marshall’s innovative and impactful research makes her a driver of social impact and an ambassador for NAU’s mission in the greater community. 


Leading her peers and supporting her community 

Jessica Marshall running a race in Sedona.Although her academic schedule alone is demanding, Marshall also finds time for leadership and mentoring activities both within the university and beyond it. She serves as president of the Ambassadors of the College of Environment, Forestry, and Natural Sciences; president of the Future Health Professionals of NAU; and vice president for the Heshima Bioethics Society, among other campus leadership and mentoring positions. Outside of the university, her volunteer work includes coaching for Girls on the Run, helping organize the Flagstaff Festival of Science and working with the Coconino Humane Association.  

For Marshall, this kind of work isn’t just about altruism—it has personal benefits as well. Leadership positions are a fantastic way to build community, to learn about what’s important to you and to learn how you can serve the people around you, Marshall said, adding that having diverse community service experiences is deeply fulfilling for her. 

“No matter what you are passionate about, there is a way to funnel that into an opportunity to give back in a way that’s exciting and personally fulfilling.” 


Taking her research and education further 

Reflecting on her undergraduate experience, Marshall attributed her success to the strong community ties she forged. 

Jessica Marshall with a group with Sedona's red rocks in the background.“I think building a strong sense of community, finding good mentors and developing a support system were the things that kept me afloat,” she said. “It’s almost certain that you will face great highs and devastating lows during your time in school, so it’s crucial to have a network of people who both celebrate your successes and act as your advocates and support when you’re in need.” 

Now, as she prepares to graduate, those relationships will help facilitate the next phase of Marshall’s career, in which she plans to spend the next year continuing her work for PMI. During that time, she will focus on a project currently in the pre-clinical developmental phase that seeks to create novel vaccines for plague and melioidosis.  

After that, Marshall intends to pursue a doctor of pharmacy degree that will allow her to conduct infectious disease pharmacy professionally.  

Although Marshall gained invaluable skills, knowledge and connections during her time at NAU, the most important things she said she learned were more about attitude and perspective: 

“Remain curious, don’t shy away from a challenge, and you’ll more often regret the chances you didn’t take.” 

NAU Communications