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Tackling Challenges From the Lab to the Capitol

Jennifer Ginther

Arizona Board of Regents, Student Regent

2012 PhD in Biology

Whether she's in the lab researching infectious diseases, mentoring undergraduates at the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics, or tending to her many duties as the student-appointed member of the Arizona Board of Regents, Jennifer Ginther doesn't seem to shy away from a challenge.

Jennifer Ginther is a third-year doctoral student from Washington, D.C., where she was an associate for Booz Allen Hamilton, providing support to the Department of Homeland Security. It wasn't long before Ginther's talent impressed the likes of Paul Keim, NAU professor of biological sciences whose research is credited for cracking the 2001 anthrax cases. He actively recruited her to Northern Arizona University.

"He knew that lacking a doctorate would hold back my career," Ginther says. "I love academia and this type of environment that fosters learning–I couldn't really turn him down."

So she left D.C. in anticipation of gaining a deeper understanding of the organisms that federal agencies consider the highest threats, focusing her research on a soil-dwelling bacterium called Burkholderia Pseudomallei. It is a naturally occurring pathogen in Australia and southeast Asia that can cause pulmonary or bloodstream infections, making it a major health concern.

"I decided to work with this organism because a lot less is known about it than others—there's not as much research done on it," Ginther says, "so I knew I could dive in and get work done."

Ginther has also jumped into another major responsibility outside of the lab, as the student representative on the Arizona Board of Regents. Appointed by Governor Jan Brewer, she's currently in the first of a two-year term, when severe financial strains are forcing the state's universities to restructure their operations. While it's not the easiest time to be representing the interests of all Arizona students, Ginther is embracing the opportunity to use her background to articulate why research is important not only to institutions of higher education, but to the overall economy of the state as well.

"The numbers are very sobering right now, so a lot of focus is coming up with ways to move forward while providing the same quality education," Ginther says.

All told, Ginther estimates that she spends at least 20 hours each week on her Board of Regents duties, serving on various committees, as well as meeting with students at NAU, Arizona State, and the University of Arizona, to gain a broader perspective on the issues and concerns.

Between the pursuit of a Ph.D., maintaining a 4.0 grade point average, and crisscrossing the state as a regent, Ginther's schedule is tight. But there's a sense that she might not have it any other way, eyeing the ultimate goal of one day working on scientific policy and management for the federal government, and perhaps keeping one foot in academia as a professor, as well.

"When I was teaching a freshman biology course, my mantra to the students was to be open and aware of opportunities," she says. "You have to be willing to jump—the only reason I'm sitting here is because my eyes were open and I took advantage of the opportunities."