I have two new students in from China and was spending some time in the lab with them. The lab is slowing morphing into a science historical site, with remnants of influence from wonderful people that stopped here for a bit before moving onto much better wonderful things.
I noticed something I have not looked at in some time. On the lab's -20°C freezer we have a sticker, a sticker of a smiling young woman, glowing with excitement. Under that picture it says Jessica Rodean Justice, 1984-2012. Her mother sent it to me with a bunch of other pictures, and I placed her photo in a prominent place in the lab so that she'd always be there with us.
Today the picture reminded me of Jessie, her story, her hardships and successes. I wanted to revisit what I wrote about her upon news of her untimely death. I'm glad I read it again, albeit tearfully. I remember why I (we) do science, why we push on, and how we need to continue the mission, now with the added burden of pushing harder for those that could not participate any longer.
Since then, her scientific contributions have been published, and a little piece of her will live on as part of our understanding of science. Miss you Jessie.
From the end of January, 2012. Going on two years now.
Goodbye to Our Friend, Jessica Rodean Justice
Late in January, 2012, a flurry of emails circulated among laboratory alumni from the Folta Lab. Each post brought sadness and questions, as it became clear that we lost a beloved member of our laboratory family, a contributor to our scientific history, and a friend that remembered to visit whenever she passed through town.
Jessica Rodean Justice joined our group as an undergraduate lab aide, probably in 2004. She worked hard at her job, taking seriously even mundane chores with great care. After a short while, it was clear that we had to get real science into her careful hands. Sure, she was a rookie, still learning; but she had a spark that we recognized as great aptitude and talent.
Jessie was outgoing and personable. She dressed, looked and acted like a University of Florida 19 year old, complete with wild stories (that would make me roll my eyes and run to my office) and tales of strange predicaments. Luckily the graduate student women in my lab always were willing to give her attention, correction and guidance.
She would always refer to herself as a 'dumb blonde' but despite this, she had an unusually developed streak of competence. I could show her something one time and she could repeat it. I would give her explicit direction and she could complete the task with great precision. I trusted Jessie, more than Jessie trusted Jessie. I remember so many occasions where she would underestimate her capacities. If there was one thing I found truly frustrating about her, it was that she had a gift that she didn't think she possessed.
She continued research in analyzing stem growth in the laboratory plant Arabidopsis thaliana, and how different wavelengths of light contributed to growth inhibition. She grew accustomed to using our LED arrays and specialized equipment that she'd use to measure the tiny seedlings. She was taking the laboratory time for credit and had to prepare a report of her research work.
While I always thought she was gifted, the report she handed me was incredibly impressive beyond expectations. She prepared a graduate-level treatment of the current state of the literature and how her work related. Turns out that I underestimated her too.
Later, I knew that she was pursuing a MS degree in occupational therapy here at UF. She'd still come by and visit here and there. It was great to see her grow up even more and gain confidence in her chosen field and blossom into a professional.
Even though she was gaining credibility in her field, she didn't shed the wild and weird streak that seemed to follow her everywhere. She'd tell me about working at Bike Week in Daytona and drift into other endeavors that were entirely Jessie-esque. Her funny edge was part of her charm.
One April I received a card in my work mailbox. It was from Jessie. She invited me to her graduation. This confidence-lacking and unsure student had achieved an academic and life milestone. On the blank side of the card she wrote, "Thank you for teaching me to think critically." It was her graduation-- but I got the best gift.
Since then I've written her reference letters for jobs, gave her interview advice and spoke to potential employers. It was great to hear that she was doing well.
The news of her death hit hard. Jessie is the first member of my lab to pass away. In an academic laboratory we work like a family. We help each other, teach each other, care for each other and foster each other's growth. We share stress, failure and triumph. We all get very close, meet each other's families, and know each other personally as well as professionally. I'm heartbroken that she won't come visit us anymore, comment about my sloppy bench and ask when she can start in the lab again.
We will all miss you Jessie. Thank you for adding something special to our little part of our science, and a big part of our lives.
-- Kevin Folta, January 2012