Jessica Vaughan
Senior biological sciences major Jessica Vaughan captains the women’s cross-country team and plans to continue her pediatrics research as a medical student next year. Michelle S. Kim / University Communications

A typical cross-country course is a 6-kilometer stretch of uneven grassy paths and calf-burning hills. To cover this distance in less than 25 minutes — a good time for a collegiate runner — Jessica Vaughan has trained about 20 hours a week and spent a lung-searing week each September more than a mile high on Mammoth Mountain with the UC Irvine women’s cross-country team.

On Oct. 22, the fifth-year senior will run her final cross-country race, but the dedication and hard work required to succeed as the team’s captain for the past two seasons is paying off in a much longer and more difficult challenge: curbing the epidemic of childhood obesity in the U.S.

Like many biological sciences majors during their junior and senior years, Vaughan sought to participate in a research program that would prepare her for medical school. Interested in children’s healthcare, she came across Dr. Dan Cooper’s Pediatric Exercise Research Center last year and was quickly invited to join the group.

“I’ve learned so much working in this center,” Vaughan says. “I like to interact with people, and the research I’m doing is exactly why I want to be a doctor.”

Under Cooper’s guidance, Vaughan has created a survey for new mothers, asking how they feel about physical activity – for both themselves and their babies as they grow up. The purpose is to learn whether exercise-oriented mothers will influence their children to be more active, which, in turn, can lower obesity risk.

After fine-tuning it with field surveys, Vaughan distributed the questionnaire at UC Irvine Douglas Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit and at daycare facilities throughout Orange County. She’s currently collecting and analyzing the data.

In another study, she addresses the higher prevalence of childhood obesity among those born prematurely by exploring the early implementation of physical activity. For her efforts, Vaughan in August was named UCI’s undergraduate Researcher of the Month; she’s also a three-time Big West Scholar-Athlete.

“Jessica is very dedicated and bright – and extremely organized,” says Cooper, who directs the campus’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Science. “Everything she’s taken on as an undergraduate — athletics and premed studies — contributes to her success.”

Vaughan says her commitment to cross-country gave her the time-management and leadership skills necessary to tackle never-ending course work and demanding research projects. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to get up at six in the morning,” she says. “It takes discipline, but everything I’m doing is worth it.”

Like her father, Dr. Christopher Vaughan ’74, an anesthesiologist who was on UCI’s first men’s cross-country team in 1972, she plans to attend medical school – ideally, she says, at UCI. But right now Vaughan is savoring her final days in cross-country.

“She’s the backbone of this team,” says women’s cross-country coach Vince O’Boyle. “She’s always been a leader. I could see that the first day she came to UCI.”

“As captain, I found that you have to bring the whole team forward,” says Vaughan, called “Mamma J” by teammates for always providing a sympathetic ear. “Medicine is the ultimate team sport. You have to work together toward a common goal.”