We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.

Jessie MacAlpine
Communication and Outreach Subcommittee
University of Toronto

Research Interest

I am passionate about using molecular genetics to understand fundamental biology. During my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto, I completed a specialist program in the Department of Molecular Genetics and decided to stay for my graduate training. I was fortunate to join the laboratory of Leah Cowen, where I was introduced to the fascinating, complex, and often overlooked world of human fungal pathogens. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate training, I was able to use functional genomics to identify genes important for the virulence of the human fungal pathogen, C. albicans. During my PhD, I dissected the interaction between Lactobacillus bacteria and C. albicans to understand how commensal bacteria can alter fungal virulence and disease. This work identified a small molecule secreted by Lactobacillus that acts against a key C. albicans virulence trait, establishing a novel strategy to thwart fungal disease.

Currently, I am transitioning to a position as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in the laboratory of Michail Lionakis. At the NIAID, I will extend my studies of human fungal pathogens to gain training in fungal immunology and human genetics.

Overall, my research interests lie in fungal pathogenesis, specifically why certain fungi, like C. albicans, are specialized members of the mucosal microbiota while other ubiquitous environmental fungi cause devastating disease in immunocompromised individuals. With a limited arsenal of antifungal therapeutics and the rising threat of antifungal resistance, I plan to continue to use molecular genetics to understand the interactions between fungi and their human hosts. The goal is to better understand fungal pathogenesis and identify potential therapeutic targets in both fungi and humans to combat fungal disease.  

As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a scientist: to be able to go into the lab, ask tough questions, and use experiments to try to further our understanding of fundamental biology. Throughout my formal education, I focused on pursuing a career as a Principal Investigator at a research-intensive institution. I am passionate about both education and research, so I am very drawn to the fact that PIs can teach classes, mentor trainees, and continue to drive a competitive research program as part of their career. Throughout my scientific training, I’ve been fortunate to work with incredible mentors and supervisors, including Leah Cowen and Teresa O’Meara, who have demonstrated what can be accomplished as a PI.

My mom and sister both recently received advanced degrees in education, so our home is always filled with lively discussions of teaching philosophies and curriculum development. I am very passionate about mentoring the next generation of scientists, and I want to pursue a career where I can continuously mentor, support, and teach students, especially in genetics-related fields. As a PI, I hope to be able to use my future lab to mentor students and continue to ask fundamental biological questions related to pathogenesis and virulence.

In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?

Throughout my scientific training, I have been passionate about science communication and outreach. In particular, I am deeply dedicated to ensuring all children can picture themselves as scientists, encouraging youth to pursue science. My passion for youth in STEM originates from my early experiences in the Canadian science fair program. Although neither of my parents are scientists, the science fair exposed me to research at a young age. These formative experiences demonstrated to me what it is like to pursue science as a career much more effectively than my elementary and high school classes.

For the past ten years, I have been a member of the Youth Science Canada Executive Committee, which organizes the annual Canada-Wide Science Fair (CWSF). In this role, I help to organize and run CWSF, which takes place in a new Canadian city each year and sees participation from approximately 500 secondary school students from every corner of Canada. Beyond these organizational efforts, since 2016, I have also helped to write and act in a children’s television show on the Canadian network TVOKids. Targeted to young learners, Blynk and Aazoo features a child asking a common question (e.g., How can I stay up all night? How can I make my vegetables taste better?) and includes an in-depth answer from a scientist. Additionally, I am a freelance journalist with Engineering.com, where I cover news related to computational biology, AI/ML, and cloud computing.

Through all these endeavors, my goal is to continue to engage the public, specifically youth, in the scientific community. I firmly believe that curiosity is a core tenet of being human. Where classical education seems to frequently fail to portray the exciting pursuit of scientific problems, I aim to use my time to ensure everyone knows they can ask complex questions and explore their curiosity. This also relates to my firm commitment to support diverse and inclusive spaces within the scientific community, whether at the science fair, in the lab, or within professional societies like GSA. Because science is a fundamental part of being human, no one should ever be excluded from pursuing it.

As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?

I joined GSA’s ECLP program to join a community of like-minded scientists dedicated to creating an inclusive, supportive, and diverse space for researchers to pursue science. As a Co-Chair of the Communication and Outreach Subcommittee, I hope to expand GSA’s commitment to engage broad audiences with the genetics community. I am particularly excited to expand the subcommittee’s social media presence to engage more non-technical audience members with the field of genetics and its impact on our everyday lives. We are in the process of launching a dedicated Instagram presence within the GSA account. In addition to this initiative, I am eager to support the subcommittee’s outreach efforts and encourage our members to develop their communication skills and conduct projects related to their passions.

Beyond my work within the subcommittee, I am also excited to be a part of the ECLP to grow my professional network and use the incredible resources offered by GSA to further my own leadership, communication, and research skills.

Previous leadership experience

Foraging for Fungi Walks, Royal Canadian Institute of Science (2022-Present)

Foundational Genetic Approaches Teaching Assistant, University of Toronto (2022)

Molecular Genetics Teaching Assistant, University of Toronto (2021-2023)

Girls SySTEM Mentor (2021-2022)

Adventures in Science Mentor, University of Toronto (2020-2022)

Math and Science Tutor-Mentor, Tutorbright Toronto (2018-2020)

Board Member, Partners in Research (2016-2019)

Judging Division Head, Thames Valley Science and Engineering Fair (2014-2019)

Executive Committee-Youth Science Canada (2013-Present)