Jessica Plavicki, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, studies the development of vasculature and the blood-brain barrier to understand the impacts of chemical exposures and genetic mutations. To do that, she uses fish. Teeny, tiny, transparent, embryonic fish. “They’re the size of Lincoln’s nose on a penny,” she says.
Her lab houses hundreds of tanks and thousands of zebrafish, the model of choice: “Within a week, you have all your major organ systems online and functioning, so we can see changes in embryonic cardiac output and then ask how that’s impacting vasculature development.” Plavicki’s focus on blood vessels, and the connections between the heart, brain, and other organ systems, is unusual in neuroscience—but, she notes, “when people look at kidney failure, one of the things that they see is actually neurological complications.”
She teaches undergrads to consider these links in her Environmental Health and Human Disease course, where along with learning toxicology and epidemiology concepts, students make podcasts about Superfund sites. Using storytelling to teach science exemplifies why Plavicki came to Providence, in 2016: “Brown seemed like a really creative, progressive place that … would be asking me to think about things in a different way,’ she says.
HOOKED: Reading about the blind cave bat fish in this story at age 9, “I was really excited by the fact that organisms would change based on their environment,” Plavicki says. “I would still study blind cave fish if I has an opportunity.”
IRON WOMAN: A runner and triathlete, Plavicki competes in grueling races like the Half Ironman, where she dons this wetsuit for the 1.2-mile swim.
GROOVY: This brain coral was a
serendipitous find for Plavicki’s mom, who picked it up on a beach in Florida.
CHEESEHEAD: Plavicki, who grew up in New York and Texas, completed her PhD and postgraduate work in Wisconsin, and she loves cheese like a native.
THE ART OF SCIENCE: Plavicki went to college planning to study art. Now she gets her creative fix with biological imaging; her award-winning confocal micrographs have graced journal covers and art exhibits.
LIKE MOTHER, LIKE SON: Love of art and the outdoors runs in the family: Plavicki’s son Lennon drew this firebreathing bunny robot when he was 6. Now 22, he’s an environmentalist and rock climber in Colorado.
FULL CIRCLE: A childhood fascination with tadpoles morphed into a love of
developmental genetics in college,
and ultimately Plavicki’s research career.
FOLLOW THE HEART: Before Plavicki began studying cardiovasculature, she picked up this model when the University of Wisconsin medical school moved. “Who knew this was foreshadowing my career?” she says.
GREEN THUMB: Plavicki loves growing vegetables and perennials. She and her son Arlo, 3, collected milkweed seeds last fall for a butterfly garden they’re planting.