All her life, Jennifer Cloutier ’13 wanted to understand how things work.
“When you’re a kid, basic mechanisms like household appliances can seem magical,” she said, explaining her fascination with science. “I wanted to understand and explain that magic.”
Cloutier’s curiosity has long since evolved from kitchen items to stem cells. As an undergraduate researcher in Professor Konrad Hochedlinger’s lab with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, she takes adult skin cells from mice, infects them with viruses to express certain proteins, and then examines how those proteins prompt the cells to reprogram or dedifferentiate into stem cells. “I study why that happens, how we can improve the process, and how we can make it safer for any future therapeutics,” she said.
Another person in Cloutier’s position might have taken a different approach to the question of why things happen. When she was 6 years old, a two-car collision changed the family forever. The accident left Cloutier and her brother, who was 4, paralyzed.
Missing more than half a year of school and sharing a room with her brother as they both recovered, the Canadian Cloutier said, prompted her lifelong obsession.
“I was exposed to learning without the pressure of school, or the mentality of going to school as work,” she said. “I think that was helpful in developing a real love of learning. I think that you learn to value what you do have.”
Athletic accomplishments were another key to Cloutier’s recovery. Initially uninterested in physical activity, she nonetheless tried new sports such as seated hockey, downhill skiing, and water skiing. When she won a gold medal in her first year of competition with Canada’s National Water Ski Development Team in 2008, her confidence hit new heights.
“For a young person with a disability, feeling confident in a physical activity is a huge proponent of being confident with other things in life,” she said. “You know, if you can do a backflip on the water, then you’re probably going to be OK.”
Even with that confidence, Cloutier said, the idea of going to Harvard seemed like a far-off dream. “My dad’s the first person in his family to go to college,” she said. “I didn’t have any idea how far getting good grades would take me. But my dad always said, ‘Just do your best, and let’s see where it gets you.’”
Now accepted into Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology, an M.D. initiative that bridges scientific research and medical practice, Cloutier said she hopes one day to be a principal investigator with her own lab, seeing a small group of patients relevant to her research.
“Harvard’s changed me a lot,” she said. “I signed up wanting to be challenged. I just wanted to see what I could do, and I feel fortunate and astounded to have the opportunity to find out.”