As a successful Carnegie Mellon University alum and former member of the cross country and track and field teams, Jessica Melanko Graham (CIT'05) has much to give. In an effort to give back, she now provides her time and wisdom to a place that helped shape her professional journey. Currently a research scientist with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, Graham didn't want to miss the opportunity to give back in a personal way.
"I had an urge to give back and when I heard about the mentorship program in athletics I thought it was the perfect way," Graham said. "Participating in athletics at Carnegie Mellon had a profound influence on who I am today."
When looking for an undergraduate school, the former distance runner for the Tartans thought she knew she wanted to have a career in research. At Carnegie Mellon, the opportunities for research grants and internships helped provide the reason she's made her career of it.
"I believed I was interested in research when entering CMU, but am also aware that what we first believe can take a different direction," Graham said. "I was lucky in that the research experiences I had at CMU and at different schools each summer, along with my senior research project at CMU, solidified my initial belief. I also found out that in order to do the kind of research with the kind of freedom I craved, I would need a Ph.D."
Still, Graham would have liked to have had someone to bounce those kinds of questions off of.
"I feel like Carnegie Mellon did a lot of great things for me and each step of my journey wouldn't have been the same had I not gone to Carnegie Mellon," Graham said. "I really like the idea of helping student-athletes navigate the next steps – going to grad school, finding an internship, applying for jobs – all the things I had questions about myself."
With these opportunities in mind, the department of athletics launched the Student-Athlete Alumni Mentoring Program this fall. The program was created as a platform to foster relationships between past and present student-athletes to provide guidance, wisdom and opportunities to the current generation of Tartans.
Graham is the first alum to be matched with a current student-athlete and the relationship between her and women's soccer senior Louisa Pendergast is off to great start. Pendergast is a biological sciences major from Seattle, Washington, the city where Graham now works as a research scientist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Participating in athletics at Carnegie Mellon not only provided Graham, an Ohio native, with a support system and family away from home, but the friendships she developed during cross country training and track and field meets paved the way to her current home on the west coast.
"Following grad school I was looking for a postdoc opportunity," Graham said. "A former teammate who lived in Seattle was familiar with Fred Hutchinson as a non-profit research group and suggested I look into it."
Graham remembers the type of work she had to put in as a student-athlete and the hours training used as a release from the grind of classes. She also fondly recalls working on engineering problem sets with her teammates in the middle of a field between races.
Experiences like these are a connecting piece between current Carnegie Mellon student-athletes and those that came before them, no matter the sport. For Pendergast, these shared experiences are one of the reasons she is excited about the mentorship program.
"I think that the mentorship program provides a great opportunity to connect with CMU alumni who understand not only the academic and career excellence that students at CMU pursue, but also the edge that sports give us," Pendergast said. "Using this program provides a valuable platform to make connections with people in our career field of interest who know and understand the workload that we endure in both school and sports."
Pendergast and Graham have exchanged multiple emails and have set up a time to meet in person while Pendergast is home for winter break.
"I'm hoping to gain insight into the graduate school and job search processes to help guide my decisions post-graduation in May," Pendergast said.
For Graham, meeting with Pendergast is an opportunity to relay the knowledge she gained through her own experiences in the post-graduation process and through graduate school, while also showing the current Tartan an inside look into the vaccine and infectious disease division at Fred Hutchinson. Through her connection with Pendergast, created by the Student-Athlete Alumni Mentoring Program, Graham is now able to provide support and guidance in a new and meaningful way that reaches across generations of Carnegie Mellon athletics.