Jessica Luo, a University of Miami graduate student, is pursuing a doctorate in Marine Biology. She spends much of her time performing lab work and complicated data analysis for her doctoral dissertation… but if you really want to make her think, ask her where she is from. Having lived in eight different cites before she turned 18, it is understandably difficult for Jessica to identify a location that truly feels like home.
Or ask Jessica about her future plans—she can’t provide much clarity. She is unsure about both her career path and her personal life, and is struggling with ongoing challenges in her relationship with her parents.
Her scholarly pursuits haven’t exactly been a source of security or peace, either. Jessica describes the academic environment in which she is immersed as often “very anti-Christianity.” She admits that, on a near-daily basis, she is “bombarded with subtle messages and passing words that cut me down.”
Given the adversity and the uncertainty that swirls around her on a daily basis, one would expect Jessica Luo to be a nervous wreck. So why isn’t she? Because, she explains, “I have seen the loving and gracious hand of God directing my path at every step of the way, and His presence comforting me in my fear of the unknown and future, so I rest secure at night – knowing that He who began a good work in me will carry it onto completion until the day of Christ.”
As a teenager, I felt a profound sense of guilt all the time. Guilt that I couldn’t live up to what my parents demanded, guilt that I was a terrible sister to my younger brother, and guilt at the anger that I felt towards my family.
Jessica was born in China, but spent much of her childhood in Northern California. Her parents were loving, caring, and supportive—but “decidedly atheist.” She learned traditional Chinese values, including kindness, respect, and self-sacrifice. But as Jessica describes it, “I learned to act like I was a good person, but did not learn about real heart change. As a teenager, I felt a profound sense of guilt all the time. Guilt that I couldn’t live up to what my parents demanded, guilt that I was a terrible sister to my younger brother, and guilt at the anger that I felt towards my family. I remember stopping in my tracks one day and wondering to myself – is this what life is? A perpetual state of guilt, where everything I do was motivated by how terrible I felt about myself? The guilt was so heavy and oppressive; it smothered me and dominated my life.”
This cycle continued until Jessica’s junior year of high school. One day, a friend shared the gospel with her for the first time and planted the seeds of a faith that would one day blossom. Later that year, Jessica went off to a boarding school, where her roommate was a Christian. Jessica was profoundly impacted by many late night conversations about Jesus Christ, faith, sin, forgiveness, and salvation. She recalls that “one day, on the brink of despair and stress from the academic rigor of my new school, I borrowed my roommate’s Bible, went into a bathroom stall, and committed my life to Christ. It was in that most inglorious of spaces that my first steps of faith were taken.” She says, “I slowly began to realize that the guilt I felt was a response to my own wretchedness, but the mercy and forgiveness of God washes it all away. I now stand in front of God as one forgiven and redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.” The guilt began to melt away from her heart.
Jessica’s conversion experience did not turn her life into a fairytale, however. Her parents accused her of betraying her roots and “relying on a made-up figure as a crutch, because she couldn’t deal with her life.” While her father initially didn’t mind that she read the Bible as a source of moral teaching, her mother was “absolutely livid” that she would even consider opening the book. Jessica fought bitterly with her parents on this subject for many years, and describes the experience as incredibly painful. In addition, she explains, “because my parents would not let me go to church, I didn’t grow very much and felt like by the end of my senior year of high school, I was losing my young faith and slipping back into darkness and depression.”
This darkness followed Jessica as she began attending college at Stanford University. There, she rejected the idea of joining any sort of Christian fellowship and instead spent her Friday nights bouncing from party to party. However, it was during this period of time that Jessica experienced God’s jealous and loving pursuit of her soul.
This darkness followed Jessica as she began attending college at Stanford University. There, she rejected the idea of joining any sort of Christian fellowship and instead spent her Friday nights bouncing from party to party. However, it was during this period of time that Jessica experienced God’s jealous and loving pursuit of her soul. She found herself becoming surrounded by Christians at every turn—as God “slowly but surely drew [her] back into a community of believers, a house of worship, and Christian fellowship.”
At Stanford, Jessica was on a pre-med academic track, but never felt certain that this field was where God wanted her. Then, during her junior year, Jessica participated in a study abroad program in Australia. While studying the Great Barrier Reef, Jessica fell in love with marine ecology and decided to switch her field of study. She describes the experience as breathtaking and life-changing: “As I saw for the first time the coral reefs and diversity of life at the Great Barrier Reef, I was powerfully struck by the realization that this creation of God screams out His glory, and yet we, mere mortals, are called to be good stewards of this creation – though we fail over and over again to do so. Furthermore, we are to understand this world, and to order and name the species in it, as Gen 2:19-20 instruct.”
Jessica continues, “After I got back from Australia, I decided to apply for a Master’s program at Stanford, and took courses for my Master’s degree during my senior year of undergrad. I then stayed for a final (fifth) year to do a research project under a professor who hired me, which I wrote up for my Master’s thesis. If this sounds short to you – it was! It was a whirlwind of a degree, and I thank God constantly that He gave me the strength to finish that thesis in time.”
Upon graduation, Jessica found a job working as the education coordinator at a national park just outside of San Francisco. She describes the job as a great experience and enjoyed having the freedom to “develop my own educational programs, have interns work on really cool science communication projects, and even participate in a groundbreaking public policy initiative establishing marine protected areas along the California coast.” Jessica spent three years at this job, and though she loved it, she realized that she loved the field of science even more. Realizing that she eventually wanted to teach and conduct research at the university level, Jessica began searching for graduate school options.
An unlikely series of events conspired to lead Jessica to the University of Miami. It was not an easy decision, as it meant travelling across the country to live in an unfamiliar city and a foreign culture. Jessica recalls that “it was just a 3,000-mile move to Miami, but to my scared little heart, it felt like an infinite distance. Finally, I realized that the Lord God was asking me to stretch myself, to step into the unknown away from my family and friends, and to trust Him that He will guide and lead me wherever I go.”
While the transition has not always been easy, Jessica describes her time in Miami thus far as a great blessing. Her studies offer an opportunity to observe God’s creation up close and personal. “Amazement at the diversity and beauty of life strikes home when you systematically study all the species of a type of organism, as I have started doing with fish through my coursework at UM. I am constantly awestruck at how similar, yet different one species can be from another (think seahorse verses tuna, for example!). This is another one of the unique and wonderful aspects of my work: that I have the opportunity whether I am above water or below, to step back and consider just how amazing God is for creating this world.”
Her daily life consists both of attending class and performing laboratory research. The ultimate goal of her PhD program is her doctoral dissertation, which she describes as a “suite of original work that represents a significant contribution to the field and advances our scientific knowledge.” All of her class and lab work is designed to prepare for this dissertation.
Jessica describes that while living out the gospel in the academic world can be challenging, she strives to “serve my boss as if I were serving Christ” and to “always show grace and sacrificial love to those around [her].” She is open about her faith and tries to “offer a view of Christians and the Christian faith that is nuanced, full of grace, thoughtful, and consistent with the whole teaching of the Bible.”
She cites 1 Peter 3:15-16 as a source of great inspiration: But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. Jessica has been encouraged to see her testimony have an impact on fellow students. She has been able to share the gospel with students and colleagues, and is excited to see what the Lord has in store for her in the weeks and months to come.
For Jessica Luo, the future after graduate school is unclear. Her past has been tumultuous and often difficult. Her academic pursuits are challenging and at times overwhelming. Yet, she doesn’t despair because “through it all, I can see the invisible hand of God guiding my path – such that I ended up in the very last place I expected… and am so incredibly glad that the Lord’s wisdom is infinitely higher than mine.”
“through it all, I can see the invisible hand of God guiding my path – such that I ended up in the very last place I expected… and am so incredibly glad that the Lord’s wisdom is infinitely higher than mine.”