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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Jessica M. Wilson, Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program

Jessica M. Wilson

Jessica Wilson, a fifth-year PhD student in the Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program (NUIN), studies the neural principles behind human motor control in the laboratory of Charles J. Heckman, PhD, professor of Physiology, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, and Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences.

Wilson earned her undergraduate degree from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, and completed a 14-month internship in Osaka, Japan. After more than 10 years of studying martial arts, Wilson developed a fascination for understanding the human body and eventually decided to pursue a career in neuroscience.

Where is your hometown?

 I grew up in Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of Canada.

What are research interests?

I’m interested in the neural principles behind human motor control. Oddly enough, I developed this interest after more than 10 years of studying martial arts; I reached a point in my training where I became fascinated with discovering how the bodyworks. The human body is a complex and beautiful machine. The act of producing the perfect punch, golf swing, or dance step requires the harmonious function of multiple systems that we don’t entirely understand yet. I take great pleasure in trying to figure out how those systems come together in different contexts.

 But, in general, I find all of neuroscience to be beautiful, and I’m always on the lookout for interesting or quirky neuroscience

What exciting projects are you working on? 

I currently study motor neuron behavior in humans. Motor neurons can be likened to the “puppet strings” of the body, but they are actually highly dynamic structures that behave differently in response to different neurotransmitters. Serotonin and norepinephrine, or example, make motor neurons extremely excitable and allow them to produce very specific firing patterns. These firing behaviors are critical for the normal control of movement, and abnormalities in these behaviors have been implicated in the motor deficits seen in stroke, ALS, and spinal cord injury. My thesis work involves looking at motor neuron behavior in healthy individuals as well as people with movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease. This involves recording from motor units directly using fine wire electrodes that are inserted into the muscle, as well as through high-density surface electromyogram electrode arrays. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a mad scientist most of the time.

What attracted you to the PhD program and Northwestern?

When I visited Northwestern during recruitment weekend, I was immediately struck by the breadth and diversity of neuroscience research across both the Evanston and Chicago campuses. The NUIN family is extremely collaborative and supportive, and is there to help whenever you need it. I had great fun sampling different areas of research during my rotations and learning from some truly great minds. As a bonus, Chicago is a fantastic city. There’s great food and soul here, and it’s a wonderful place to live and study.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

My classmates are the best part of my graduate experience, hands down. We all bonded fairly quickly during our first year in the NUIN program, and we continue to stay in touch even after we split up to our respective labs. We’ve collaborated, exchanged ideas and advice, and done volunteer work together. My classmates are talented, smart individuals who will make great contributions long after they graduate, and I’m privileged to call them my friends and colleagues.

What do you do in your free time?

I probably have way too many hobbies, but I’m extremely passionate about science communication. Early in my graduate career I acted as a mentor for Northwestern Science and Society’s Science Club, as well as co-founded the Northwestern University Brain Awareness Outreach group, a graduate student group dedicated to educating and exciting the public about brain research. Right now I’m trying to dabble in science communication via digital media. I’ve submitted popular science articles to Northwestern’s Helix Magazine, as well as made kids’ neuroscience videos for YouTube. Science communication is part science, part sales, and part entertainment. It’s tons of fun because I get to act like an utter goofball while getting people excited about things I love.

Connect with Jessica on LinkedIn.