Jessica Cunningham

What are you studying at West Virginia University?

I am in the M.D./Ph.D. Program. I’m a fifth-year neuroscience Ph.D. candidate studying developmental neuroscience.

Why WVU?

When I graduated from Mercyhurst University, I went to work doing a post-baccalaureate program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). From there, I realized I loved both research and the practice of medicine. Because of that, I began looking at schools that had the M.D./Ph.D. program and when I visited WVU, I just fell in love with the school and the atmosphere of the people here.

 Why did you want to get into medicine and research?

In high school, I fell in love with both chemistry and biology, and selected Biochemistry as a college major figuring it would cover those two areas of science. I was able to get into research while at Mercyhurst, studying garlic of all things, and from there I developed a love for research and the scientific process.  I wanted to apply this to human patients, to help develop better treatments for devastating diseases.

What was some of the research you were doing at the NIH?

While at the NIH, I worked for the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the Laboratory of Neurogenetics.  The lab studies how genes and environment can interact to influence behavior using non-human primate models.  My project looked specifically at variations in dopamine receptors and how they influenced behavior.

How has your time at WVU influenced your goals?

It has given me a lot of opportunities for leadership both in the laboratory and in the greater graduate community.  WVU has provided an enriching environment for me to gain the skills and knowledge to be both a successful physician and scientist.

Is there an experience you’ve had that made you realize why you chose this profession? 

Throughout my Ph.D., we were targeting one area of the brain in a mouse model, but what we discovered was that we were indirectly affecting another area of the brain entirely. It was an extremely interesting finding, one that I had not expected to stumble upon.  The thrill of discovery only fueled my desire to pursue research further and has taught me to have a critical eye which will only help my medical and research careers.

What are you hoping to do in your career?

I’ve always loved research. I really would love to try to intertwine both the practice of medicine and research in my future career. After my M.D./Ph.D. program, I hope to enroll in a Physician Scientist Training Program, which combines both residency and research and will prepare me to be a physician-scientist.

What are you hoping to accomplish?

First and foremost, I’d love to have a balance between work and life. I am passionate about my career, but my husband and family are just as important to me.  We are all on long roads of learning in the academic world, and I want to make sure I take time to live and enjoy the journey. I would also love to teach and mentor the scientists and physicians of the future.

How do you balance working towards a Ph.D. and M.D.?

I have some outside activities to focus on, and my husband is one of my biggest supporters. Having him to lean on and decompress with is great.

Favorite thing about WVU?

It is definitely the pride in the state everyone has- it is really incredible. Football game days are some of my favorite days of the year. I also love the outdoors and all of the neat activities living in the great state of West Virginia offers.