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ChemGSA Presidents Past and Future Reflect on Chemistry Journey

By Kari Lindsey



September 28, 2020

Jerica Wilson and DJ Hall - ChemGSA Presidents
New ChemGSA president Jerica Wilson (left), and outgoing president DJ Hall

We caught up with two presidents of the Chemistry Department Graduate Student Association (ChemGSA) — outgoing president DJ Hall, and new president Jerica Wilson — to get their views on chemistry, ChemGSA and their futures.

Advancing Science: Meet DJ Hall

How did you begin your journey into chemistry?

I grew up working on a farm, and my mentor was a veterinarian. I became fascinated by how medicinal therapeutics worked and saved many of the sick animals that I encountered. When it was time to go to college, I ultimately chose chemistry because of the fascination I had with how these tiny compounds could have such an effect on a complex multicellular organism. When choosing my path out of my undergraduate studies, I decided I wanted to work on the larger picture in medicine to help understand and design new therapeutics rather than just individualized medicine.

How did you become president of the GSA?

I have served on GSA for three years. I was the VP for one year and the president for two. I wanted to help build the organization and bridge some of the gaps between the department and the graduate students. I also wanted to help bring attention to issues faced by graduate students.

We have expanded ChemGSA a lot over the last three years; we doubled the number of events hosted by ChemGSA and almost doubled the budget. We have run extremely successful fundraising events for the organization, and there has been a notable increase in participation in events. ChemGSA was also named the Most Academically Driven Organization by the Graduate College this last year!

What research are you currently involved in?

My main research and thesis focus is the development and design of small-molecule therapeutics for the inhibition of the bacteria enzyme RelA, which contributes to the antibiotic resistance of chronic biofilm infections. This project has led to the discovery of several hit compounds that are showing promise to help reduce this antibiotic resistance.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have switched my short-term focus to developing small molecule protein inhibitors as therapeutics to SARS-CoV-2 infections. I am working with a team of Drexel researchers to focus on a hit-to-lead therapeutic development pipeline from in silico to in vivo mouse models. Smaller projects include the development of antimicrobial phosphorus-based quantum dots, development of biofilm standardization methods, and understanding biofilm attachment on 3D printed materials as well as ways to prevent this attachment.

What is your next step?

I have accepted a post-doc under the direction of Prof. Garth Ehrlich at Drexel University College of Medicine. There, I will continue some of my work on biofilms as well as expand into other research avenues related to biofilms and more generally infectious diseases.

What do you see for yourself in the future?

I would like to continue in academia and become a principal investigator. I have always been fascinated by the chemistry and biochemistry of infectious diseases, and that is where I would like to continue to grow my research roots.

You mentioned possibly becoming a Principal Investigator. Why become a PI, as opposed to entering the private sector?

I have always loved the idea of the research freedom that academia provides, and I love training people and sharing my knowledge of science. One of my greatest joys is helping people understand the science and pushing others to learn new things with me. I feel like a PI position would allow me to fully take advantage of the satisfaction of training others and helping them reach their goals, and ultimately advance science and knowledge for the greater good. Being president of ChemGSA has also taught me that I can successfully lead teams to accomplish goals, and this, I feel, will translate well into running a laboratory at a research institution.

Art & Science: Meet Jerica Wilson

When did you initially become interested in Chemistry?

I initially became interested in chemistry my junior year of high school — honestly, during the flame test lab experiment.

When did you decide to become a chemistry major, and how long have been a member of the Chem GSA?

It took a while to get to that decision. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in history and 2D fine art. I started a graduate program right out of college and quickly realized history was not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I worked odd jobs for a year before deciding to take a chemistry class at a community college to see if that field still held interest for me, and I have not looked back since.

I started at Drexel in the fall of 2017. I have been a member of ChemGSA for three years, and though I helped with events last year, this is my first year on the executive board.

As a chemistry major, what do you wish other people knew/understood about chemistry?

There is a false dichotomy between science and art that draws invisible and unnecessary boundaries on how one is allowed to think, and I wish I could convince more of this falsehood. Society has placed science and art at opposing ends of the spectrum, mandating one to be of superior thought and the other less. As both a chemist and artist, I cannot see the disciplines as opposites; they overlap and intertwine, and I want others to understand the artistry that chemistry requires, in particular, my chosen field of organic synthesis. Chemistry is not all rigid logic, but demands creative approaches and fluid thinking that are found in an artist’s arsenal. There is such a benefit to combining thinking from across disciplines.

Can you explain the process of how the ChemGSA executive board is nominated/elected/chosen?

If one would like to hold a position, they email the current president with their name, desired position, and a short statement detailing their qualifications for candidacy. If there are multiple self-nominated people for one position, the chemistry graduate students vote for their preferred candidate.

What do you envision for the role of the ChemGSA going forward?

Going forward, I would like to see ChemGSA take a stronger role in assisting the chemistry graduate students with professional development. Preparation for the next step is crucial towards the success of the master’s and PhD graduates and, if we can offer any support in that area, it will be highly beneficial to the chemistry graduate student body.

What do you hope to accomplish as President?

I hope to continue the momentum and keep propelling the organization forward. We have a lot of ideas for events and Scholar Shares that we hope will keep bringing together and engaging the chemistry graduate students in supportive and collaborative environments. And there’s a little bit of fun planned, too.

Learn more about Drexel’s graduate programs in chemistry.