Local teen is brain surgeon in the making - East Valley Tribune: Ahwatukee Foothills

Local teen is brain surgeon in the making

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Posted: Monday, March 2, 2009 12:00 am | Updated: 10:48 am, Wed Jun 6, 2012.

She is only a teenager in the world of PhD's and graduate students, but this future brain surgeon realizes she is getting the experience of a lifetime.

Jessie Koljonen, who turned 18 last week, works in a behavioral neuroscience laboratory at Arizona State University and has been dubbed by her fellow laboratory students as the "best brain slice mounter," a distinction that she is quite fond of.

Koljonen lives in Ahwatukee Foothills but attends the Peggy Payne Academy, a gifted high school program and part of McClintock High School in Tempe. She has interned at the neuroscience lab for the past year where she works with rats, their brains and how drugs affect each.

"It was funny because the first time I went to the lab to meet the people, we were just supposed to go there to talk to (the director) and just see what things are ... and they were doing emergency brain dissections right there, and I was like, wow, this is so cool," Koljonen said.

Her work involves testing how the rat's memory and cognition are affected by certain drugs. This involves using different mazes and testing their working and reference memory, she said.

"Just sitting in the lab, listening to people talk about the hippocampus and spatial memory, it's really cool," Koljonen said.

Although she said this internship is her proudest accomplishment, in her resume, there are two additional pages of such that any college acceptance committee would appreciate.

Koljonen was recently named the city of Phoenix Outstanding Young Woman of the Year for District 6 due to her work within the community. Currently, she volunteers for four hours every Saturday as a receptionist for Fresh Start Women's Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed as a resource for women going through a life-changing event.

"I'm just the receptionist, but they are doing amazing things for women down there (at Fresh Start), women who just want to talk to someone most of the time," she said.

Along with volunteering, interning and school work, Koljonen also played a role in getting the three Tempe Union High School District ballot measures passed in November.

The group of students, known as the Superintendent Advisory Council, frequently interacted with Superintendent Steve Adolph on all issues that affect student life. Leading up to Nov. 4, Koljonen said she knocked on doors, made hundreds of calls and encouraged fellow students to speak with their parents about the ballot measures. The result: all three passed, giving TUHSD a much-needed financial leg-up.

"It was very exciting to get the ballot measures passed. I like to think that my work was a little part of that," she said.

Koljonen was born in the Philippines and moved to New Mexico after a year. She stayed there until second grade before moving to the Valley.

Now her future dreams are filled with Ivy.

She is eagerly anticipating the last day in March and the first day in April when she will find out what colleges she has been accepted into and where she will attend in the fall.

"I applied to 14 schools, like Cornell and Harvard, but I really like John Hopkins. My half-brother went there and he said he really liked it," she said.

Koljonen's decision to go into the medical field was delayed at first, but really, how many 17-year-olds have taken more than their first couple steps in becoming a brain surgeon?

"This summer, I went to program called MEDCAMP at (the University of Arizona) to see what life would be like as a medical student or working at a hospital," she said. "I remember one guy I talked to, he was a brain surgeon and he was just really cool and I loved all his stories. He talked to me about his 10-year-long residency and how he would go to Africa to perform critical surgeries. I was like, wow, that sounds like fun and I really could see myself doing that."

For now, however, Koljonen will continue to dissect rat brains and volunteer and, occasionally, do the usual high school things.

"I just really like to be involved in a bunch of different things," she said.

Asked how she felt about moving from rats to people, Koljonen recalled another experience.

"I volunteered at (St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center Neuro Rehabilitation unit) and interacted with patients after they had brain surgery," she said. "It was something I wanted to do, I wanted to help them out. When I spoke with them, they were just so happy to be alive because of the tumors they had. They could have died the next week ... but the doctors changed that."

As her days are usually packed from top to bottom, when asked what she likes to do in the little free time she does have, Koljonen responded: "driving."

"I do not really have a lot of free time, but I really like driving. It's kind of random, but I do. Sometimes me and my friends will just drive down to Tucson for the day or drive around the city," she said. "It's fun. I'm a normal person too."

A normal person but with exceptional motivation, Jessie Koljonen is a name to remember.

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