At the age of eight, Jennifer Dionne planned to pursue a career in the paranormal. An avid fan of the X-files, she aspired to be an investigator—an Agent Scully—uncovering clues and unpacking supernatural mysteries.
Raised as an only child in Rhode Island, Jen had great freedom to indulge her inquisitive inclinations. Her mother, a nurse, and her father, a construction worker, encouraged their daughter’s intellectual development and independence by routinely redirecting her many questions to the family’s pre-Google collection of encyclopedias. From a young age, Jen was primed to question everything and to rely on herself to find answers.
Naturally, such intellectual curiosity led to frequent trips to the neighborhood bookstore. Initially in pursuit of the paranormal, Jen soon shifted into the physics texts along the shelves as pa gave way to ph. And it was but a short leap from the physics shelves to the nearby books on quantum physics.
Physics became Jen’s preferred language to describe the world. And, a few years later, armed with a full-tuition scholarship to WashU, Jen was empowered to work toward fluency. Having grown up in a blue-collar family, college was not a given. Jen says, “Were it not for the scholarship programs that WashU offered, I probably would not have been able to attend WashU, nor to finish my degree.”
“WashU was transformative and taught me how to think about multidisciplinary problems and the power of convergence. And I think that started on my freshman floor, where there was an incredible community of freshmen from almost every continent—individuals from a multitude of countries all interested in very different topics, but collectively trying to address many of the same challenges.”Jennifer Dionne
When she enrolled in 1999, Jen declared a double major in physics and system science and mathematics within the McKelvey School of Engineering. She took advantage of undergraduate research opportunities and began to work on a project under the direction of Emeritus Professor Mark Conradi, applying insights from physics to the development of medical technologies. Working through the summer in Crow laboratory on the Danforth campus, Jen was able to see how devices designed in the physics lab were translated and applied in the School of Medicine. Such interdisciplinary work would directly inform her later career.
Today, Jen Dionne is a materials science and engineering professor at Stanford University. She also holds an appointment in the Department of Radiology and is co-founder of Pumpkinseed. And naturally, she is still researching at the nexus points. Her work aims to improve planetary and personal health. She is particularly fascinated by the remarkable power of sunlight and is seeking to harness its energy in a range of applications. In her biology lab, for instance, Dionne is prototyping sunlight-powered techniques to detect bacteria more rapidly in patients and in waterways. Through accelerated detection, Jen will save lives and redeem streams.
Strikingly, when Jen Dionne describes WashU, she emphasizes the idea of diversity—of perspective, culture, country, and thought—as an invaluable feature of her undergraduate experience. “WashU was transformative and taught me how to think about multidisciplinary problems and the power of convergence. And I think that started on my freshman floor, where there was an incredible community of freshmen from almost every continent—individuals from a multitude of countries all interested in very different topics, but collectively trying to address many of the same challenges,” she says.
In fact, Jen met her future husband, Nhat Vu, BS ’03, the child of Vietnamese immigrants, on move-in day itself. He helped her family settle Jen and her belongings into her new dorm room. While they started as friends, over time and through years of conversation, they became a couple and still enrich each other— and their two boys, Marcus (7) and Hugo (5) —through their different socio-cultural backgrounds.
Today, the WashU experience of a truly varied intellectual community remains vital to Jen’s approach to critical problems. She recognizes science as a single discipline among many disciplines essential to solving complex challenges. This recognition has been incredibly productive from her years at WashU and forward.
As Jen emphasizes, her achievement stems directly from access to education and the scholarship that made it possible. And perhaps, one day, all of us will be the beneficiary of that original investment in Jen Dionne’s enduring and investigative drive.
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