As a physiologist, Jessica Ibarra freely admits she was far from becoming the genetic engineer or dentist she dreamt of becoming as a young girl. Growing up she was curious and fascinated by things around her. Lucky for her, she grew up in a household fostered by curiosity and ingenuity. Her father, an auto mechanic, tinkered with engines and car parts. Her mother was clever and resourceful, coming up with brilliant solutions to everyday problems raising five children. From a young age she had an interest in science. In elementary school she wanted to be dentist. In middle school she aspired to be a genetic engineer (she didn’t know exactly what that meant, it was just a science word she heard at school about a science career). The wheels of curiosity were in motion but going to college was out of the question. This was especially true since she dropped out of high school to marry her high school sweetheart and raise their two young children. Yet that didn’t stop her from attending Palo Alto College to earn an A.S. in Biology (and have a third child) and later a B.S. in Biology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She later earned her doctorate in Cellular and Structural Biology from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio where she also completed a postdoctoral fellowship.
Though she enjoyed research, she pursued a career in academic medicine beginning at the University of the Incarnate Word. It was at this time she was diagnosed with breast cancer three weeks after her 39th birthday. The news was shocking. Her science background permitted her to carefully consider the diagnosis, treatment, and health outlook. More than ever Jessica relied on family and friends to sustainher through the difficult time. She credits the unconditional love, support, compassion, patience, and encouragement she received from her husband, children, siblings, and parents to her strong will to fight breast cancer.
They showed her an incredible amount of kindness, especially in her recovery from surgery and during the difficult days of chemotherapy. Above all, she leaned on God to navigate the journey of a double mastectomy, reconstruction, chemotherapy, recovery, and survivorship. It was her faith in God that gave her peace over the grief of the diagnosis. The experience was life changing. She considers herself blessed beyond measure to be alive. The curious nature of her younger self continues to ask questions. Jessica can’t help thinking how different her diagnosis and treatment would have been had she remained poor, uneducated, and uninsured.
She is well aware of how different the experience is for patients facing disparities in income, education, race, gender, and geography. For this, and many other reasons, she openly shares her journey, creates awareness, helps women understand cancer, connects them to resources, provides emotional support, and helps those faced with a cancer diagnosis understand the importance of making informed decisions about their their treatment and care, giving them hope.
Seven years later, she is grateful for how cancer redirected her to live a life with purpose and in meaningful relation with those around her. Currently Jessica continues her work in medical education at Dell Medical School of the University of Texas at Austin. In this endeavor she teaches physiology to first year medical students. When she is not teaching she spends her time with her family — her joy. Together with Armando, her husband of 29 years, they are proud grandparents to Mia and Matthew, and parents to Ryan, Brianna, and Christian Ibarra.