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Jessica Etter standing outside near a tree.

Brussels sprouts and Parkinson's push chemistry senior toward Ph.D. at Oregon State

By Luke Nearhood

Graduating high school at 16 is no easy feat. For Jessica Etter, it also meant the additional challenge of starting college at 17. Etter started her journey as an Oregon State University chemistry student with the goal of becoming a forensic scientist, however, she has since found a passion for research and will be starting a Ph.D. at Oregon State this fall.

As an undergraduate, Etter was heavily involved in research and did work looking at the anti-cancer properties of chemicals found in a food group that incites mixed reactions. Now as a master's student, Etter has started a project looking at how to quantify signs of Parkinson's disease in a person's blood.

A long-time proponent of science communication, Etter has been involved in some form of science outreach since high school. She has continued to stoke the flames of passion for scientific outreach throughout her college career.

Looking Back

Born in California and raised in Scappoose, Oregon, Etter skipped the fifth grade, and graduated high school at the age of 16, in 2019. She started college that fall at 17-years-old.

Not yet legally an adult and only a few months over the age of 17, college came with unique complications. Navigating living away from family and new social dynamics while adjusting to college life and challenging academics was a huge undertaking.

Being younger than her peers drew Etter to the STEM Leaders program. The STEM Leaders program seeks to provide otherwise underserved students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with the resources and experience they need to be successful in research.

"I would not have probably started research as early as I did if it wasn't for the STEM Leaders program," Etter said.

After she finished the program Etter worked for the program as an administrative assistant for two years. She found it rewarding to be able to share the positive experience the program gave her with others. She has since transferred to a similar program URSA (Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and the Arts) Engage. There she works as an Undergraduate Research Ambassador, a position she has been in for the last year.

Recently, she joined the Girls Empowerment, Engineering and Outreach club, which hosts STEM outreach events for the Corvallis community.

“That's been super fulfilling because I’ve always wanted to share science with people," Etter said. "I've been involved with science STEM camps since probably my first year of high school, so being able to continue that in college has been super amazing."

This summer Etter will be doing similar work through Oregon State's precollege programs. She'll be traveling around rural Oregon hosting the iINVENT science program for communities that traditionally don't have access to hands on science, technology, engineering and math opportunities.

While not quite science outreach, it was the science communications abilities and passion of her high school chemistry teacher that convinced Etter to major in chemistry in the first place.

Jessica Etter

Jessica Etter wears her cap and gown in front of the Linus Pauling Science Center on Oregon State Universities Corvallis campus.

While she originally wanted to study forensic science after watching crime scene investigators on television, Etter found she's more interested in preventing deaths than investigating them.

"I got into it because I wanted to be on the true crime shows, but that's not really my path," Etter said.

She was drawn to Oregon State because of the numerous opportunities for undergraduate research. She feels Oregon State has a stronger culture around encouraging first-year and sophomore students to participate in research than other universities.

Etter's path brought her to the Department of Environmental Molecular Toxicology in the College of Agricultural Sciences. There she researched the potentially chemopreventive—cancer preventing—properties of chemicals in cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables are plants in the family Brassicaceae, including Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale.

"I was working on basically quantifying those chemicals in different preparations of Brussels sprouts," Etter said. "If they were freeze dried or old, or if they've been sitting out for a while, seeing how those chemicals break down and change within those samples."

Her undergraduate research was conducted under David Williams, Postdoctoral Scholar Monica Maier and Beth Siddens, a researcher in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

The small size of the chemistry department at Oregon State has been a blessing to Etter, as it's given her the ability to get to know the faculty well, particularly the analytical chemistry faculty.

"I know that there are people here who are supporting me and there are opportunities for me to be successful."

Some instructors and professors who have been particularly impactful for Etter include, Louis M. Wojcinski, Kyriakos Stylianou, Vincent T. Remcho and Dipankar Koley.

And of course, her undergraduate academic advisor Neal Sleszynsk, who convinced her to go into the Accelerated Master's program and pursue graduate school. The Accelerated Master’s program let Etter get ahead on her graduate course credits as undergrad. She completed her bachelor’s degree in the winter of 2023, and has since switched her graduate degree from a master’s to a Ph.D..

Looking Forward

A two-time James D. Ingle scholar, her sophomore and junior years at Oregon State, Etter decided she wanted to stick with a department she knows will support her financially and academically for her graduate degree.

"I know that there are people here who are supporting me and there are opportunities for me to be successful," Etter said.

Etter is now doing work with Claudia Maier on techniques that could eventually be used to detect Parkinson's disease earlier. The research focuses on detecting the presence of oxylipins in blood plasma. Oxylipins are, in essence, the result of fats breaking down. Given that the brain is predominantly fat, if you detect certain by-products of fat breakdown in the blood that could be a sign of neurodegeneration.

The research is in the beginning stages. Before they can start applying oxylipin detection to finding Parkinson's, they must first establish how oxylipins are correlated with brain health. And before that, they have to be able to reliably separate oxylipins from the blood and identify them, which is what Etter is working on.

Currently, she is doing this work as a master's student, and this fall she will officially be starting her Ph.D., continuing this work.

After completing her Ph.D., Etter plans to go into biomedical research, specifically pharmaceutical development. She wants to continue her research, and apply it to saving and improving lives.