Isabella Jacus is on a mission. The Saint Leo biology student is driven to honor her uncle and help many others affected by what he endured – an untreatable brain tumor.

A native of Cliffside Park, N.J., the motivated 20-year-old sophomore graduated from Paramus Catholic High School. She started her college career at Saint Leo in 2017.

Choosing the Saint Leo Biology Program

Jacus flocked south to attend Saint Leo since the school has resonated so well within her family.

"My aunt and uncle both went to Saint Leo, and my mom even went here for a short time," she says. "When I came to campus for the first time, I knew in my heart that it was the right place for me to be."

Her aunt and uncle, Nishie and Juan Perez, met when they were attending Saint Leo in the late 1970s. There is even a brick outside of the Saint Leo Abbey with their names carved into it. Nishie studied psychology, while Juan was a business management major.

Along with family roots, Jacus was immediately sold on how supportive the entire community was upon arriving on campus.

"The campus is smaller, you get to be in smaller classes and you really get to know your professors well," she says.

Jacus and her aunt and uncle all had Dr. Jack McTague, a longtime history professor at the university.

"It's kind of funny because we all got A's in his class," she says with a chuckle.

She says she has thoroughly enjoyed her time enrolled in the Saint Leo biology program. In addition to valuable knowledge and experience she has received in the classroom, she has had some unique academic opportunities as well.

"I've done some exciting research with Dr. Audrey Shor and Dr. William Ellis," she explains. "I've done work ranging from protein modeling to molecular dynamic simulations to mangrove research."

Last year, she had the chance to do a six-week summer internship at Michigan State University. This year, she's headed home to Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey for an eight-week program.

Plus, she recently took on a second major –religion – to add to her degree program, and her ultimate goal is to attend medical school and work in a healthcare setting.

"I want to be able to help people and also incorporate faith and healing into my work," she says. "Medical research is a wonderful thing, but I think there needs to be more of a community for patients and medical professionals for support."

For her honors program thesis project next semester, Jacus will work under the guidance of Dr. Michael Tkacik and Dr. Thomas Humphries in writing a paper analyzing healing miracles in the Gospel of Luke and their relevance to doctors today in hopes of having it published in an undergraduate religion journal.

Outside of her coursework, she is a proud member of TriBeta, the biology honor society, and was elected as the vice president for next year. She is also involved in the university's music ministry program in which she plays piano at weekly Student Masses.

Fighting for a Cure

In 2011, her uncle, a former member of the Saint Leo baseball team, was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Specifically, he had a glioblastoma, which is widely regarded as the most aggressive type of brain cancer. She has incorporated research on this specific form of cancer into her own academic research.

"He didn't have any major symptoms except for some headaches here and there," she explains. "He went to the doctor and they did a CAT scan and found the tumor. They did surgery to try to take out as much of the tumor as they could, but he ended up having a brain hemorrhage and wound up being in a coma for a few weeks. Up until that point, he was perfectly healthy, and there was no history of any kind of cancer in the family."

At age 52, the brain cancer forced Juan Perez to leave behind his wife, three children and many other loved ones.

"I want to bring hope to others and hopefully help bridge a positive future for those with this diagnosis," Jacus says. "I want to find a cure."

She certainly has not hesitated in fighting for more research and potential treatment options. Last month, she worked with some faculty members and the National Brain Tumor Society to organize a fundraiser and 5K event at Saint Leo's University Campus.

"Brain tumors have become the leading cause of cancer deaths in children who are 19 and younger, which has surpassed leukemia. Also, they are becoming a worse and worse problem across all age groups. There needs to be more awareness about this condition because it's still something people don't really want to talk about. That's why I wanted to do this event."

She was pleasantly surprised at how successful it was.

"We aimed for $5,000 and raised around $5,200. Putting on this event made me feel really close to my uncle. It's been a surreal experience seeing the outpouring of support."

Saint Leo faculty members, staff, students and even first responders all participated in the event.

"It truly came out beautifully," she says.

She initially got the event approved through Saint Leo president Dr. Jeff Senese who was also in attendance on the morning of the walk. Dr. Laura Altfeld, who is involved with the Tri-Beta chapter, helped Jacus as well, along with others in the Saint Leo biology program and the Department of Mathematics and Sciences in general.

All of the proceeds raised went to the National Brain Tumor Society. The organization assisted Jacus with creating a website for the event, along with a large poster, bracelets and other promotional items.

"They gave us so much help and support to host this event."

Several local businesses also pitched in financially to sponsor the event. There was a raffle with prizes as well. Participants enjoyed bagels with cream cheese and fruit for breakfast, and water stations were set up throughout the route.

Starting near Lake Jovita, the route went all the way around campus. It turned out to be about 3.2 miles. Roughly 70 individuals came out for the event. A few speakers were on hand to help educate attendees on brain tumors and the need for more research into treating them.

"I hope this event will encourage other students to pursue causes that mean a lot to them," she says.

Feeling Her Uncle's Presence

Jacus felt the presence of her uncle during the event and says she will continue working in his honor.

"I think my uncle knew that we were putting on this event and he would be very proud," she says. "When I treat patients in the future, he will always be in my heart."

Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Saint Leo biology student Isabella Jacus and are used with permission.

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