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Last Choice, Best Decision

Jessica Gluck

By Jessica Roulhac

“I’ll try [NC State] for a semester, but I’m going somewhere else.”

Looking back on her early days as an undergraduate student, Assistant Professor of Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science (TECS) Jessica Gluck ’05, ‘07 can only laugh at her plans to leave NC State so soon. 

It wouldn’t take her long to see that “mom was right.” Her dad was, too. Gluck’s parents were early champions of NC State.

Now in a different role, Gluck is back at the university guiding the next generation of students as they explore the exciting field of medical textiles. She brings to the classroom two degrees from the Wilson College: a bachelor’s in textile technology and a master’s in biomedical textiles. She also has a master’s in biomedical engineering and a doctorate in molecular, cellular and integrative physiology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which has one of the top-ranked physiology programs in the nation.

What started as a parental push to the university quickly turned into confirmation for Gluck. She knew that she was in the right place and settled on a degree in textile technology. She was determined to one day explore medical textiles.

Within three years, Gluck completed her undergraduate degree  — and she packed in two study abroad adventures. She chose programs in Spain and South America.

Her next steps would become even more clear as she easily transitioned to the graduate program at NC State. While conducting graduate research and working with biomaterials under the direction of TECS Professor Martin King, Gluck couldn’t shake the biomedical bug.

She wanted to learn more. There were so many questions, and she was seeking answers.

“I kept coming back to if I want to make these materials, I need to understand what they’re doing in the body,” Gluck says. “I felt like I was really missing out on that biological [part].”

Cross-country research

Gluck’s curiosity brought her to UCLA to learn more about the field of biomedical engineering as well as molecular, cellular and integrative physiology. Gluck would complete one postdoctoral fellowship to train at the University of California, Davis, in stem cell biology at the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine. Her second fellowship was in basic and translational cardiovascular medicine at UC Davis.  

The programs were challenging, but Gluck’s time at NC State equipped her with the skills she would need to thrive in the lab. 

Research independence was among those skills, and she thanks Professor King.

“I would go into [Professor King’s] office and say, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” she says. “He would ask probing questions, and he wouldn’t give me the answer.” 

While the hunt for answers may have been frustrating at the moment, Gluck appreciated King’s availability and how he pushed her to stretch her problem-solving skills. 

“I knew I had that skill set to be able to develop a question, ask a question, and figure out how to answer and build upon it,” Gluck says. “What Dr. King really enabled me to do was keep pursuing that line of questioning. That’s how I went so deep on the biology and physiology side.”

At UCLA, Gluck was first exposed to stem cell biology. She began to ask more in-depth questions and merge her interests in fibrous scaffolds, stem cell biology and cellular physiology.

Her quest for finding answers continues to be a life-long mission.

Back to school

With four degrees behind her and many years doing research in the lab, Gluck took a break. She made the trip back to the East Coast and began working at the Discovery Place as a content expert. She helped with the museum’s human health exhibit. While she enjoyed it, it wouldn’t take her long to miss hands-on research. She was thinking about being in the lab again.

While working with Precise Bio, a small biotech company, she was back in the lab. The team developed a 4D bioprinting platform to create biofabricated corneal implants and meet transplantation needs. As she was learning, growing, and being challenged each day on the job, Gluck realized that she was also starting to think like a professor pursuing tenure.

Could academia be calling?

After an invitation to apply to the Wilson College, Gluck decided to commit to the application process. Her next steps became clear: She was hired and began teaching in the Fall of 2020.

Transforming tissue 

With a focus on biomedical textiles, Gluck is seeing how she can create heart tissue in the lab using a nanofibrous scaffold to host stem cells. The goal is to see how these stem cells can become a beating heart. Then, researchers can better understand how the heart can develop. They can also learn more about heart disease, its origins and ways to prevent it.

But there’s more.

Cardiac Cells
A fluorescent microscopic image from Dr. Gluck’s research shows a stem cell that has started to become a heart cell. Lines represent proteins, green dots mark an ion channel that is specific to the pacemaking function of the heart and blue dots mark the nuclei.

Imagine if you could now create functional beating heart tissue in the lab. Currently, pharmaceutical companies test animal hearts to understand a medication’s side effects. With the potential of this future development, companies can save time and money by getting more accurate results from human heart tissue.

If you can create human heart tissue in the lab, what does this mean for heart transplants? Gluck doesn’t have all of the answers, but she’s in the right place to find them.

Passing the torch 

Back on campus, some things have changed — while others have not. Her mentor, King, is still on campus. Now, they’re peers guiding the next round of students. 

“I needed to have gone away from [NC State]  to appreciate what I had,” Gluck says.

This year, Gluck watched her first doctoral student complete their preliminary exam. To see students get excited about their research and to follow a path of discovery and problem-solving has been extremely rewarding.

zoom meeting

She thanks King for his influence. Now, she’s taking his advice as she balances between pushing students to question ideas further and knowing when it’s time to step in with wisdom.

“One thing that has been consistent is [that the Wilson College] is student-oriented in both the department and the college,” Gluck says. “It’s all about what we can do to make sure our students are prepared for the real world, whether that’s industry, or if that’s academics. What resources can we provide to them to make sure they feel prepared?”

The Wilson College’s commitment to student success is what kept Gluck at NC State as an undergraduate student and a master’s student. It is also what brought her back.