Jacqueline Valeri’s (E ‘18) personality is much like the Penn band rehearsal room she spends much of her time in. She’s outspoken, unabashed, and liable to wander off on random tangents in conversation, like the various instruments all playing seven different melodies at once. All of these diverse bits and pieces that make up Jacqueline come together like a beautiful song in the marching band: forceful, quick–witted, and intelligently composed.
Jacqueline is an academic goliath, having completed enough credits over the past four years to earn her an undergraduate degree in bioengineering with a minor in computer science as well as a bioengineering master’s degree. While admitting that it was a lot to take on, she says that she loves going to class and didn’t mind the extra load due to her sheer interest in the field. “They were classes I was gonna take anyways,” she says, “so why not try to finagle them and get things to double–count where they could to get the extra degree?”
These impressive academic pursuits are by no means ending in May—she’s off to MIT for graduate school next fall. She then pulls out the bag they gave her when she visited the campus for the first time, saying, “It was really the bag. They convinced me to go with the bag. They filled it with all kinds of goodies, granola bars, and orange juice, and Hershey’s cookies…”
While her story may seem like that of a typical scholar, her success becomes an extraordinary feat when considering the obstacles Jacqueline has overcome. Jacqueline was diagnosed with Lyme disease her sophomore year in high school and relapsed into serious illness soon after arriving to Penn. She suffered pneumonia during her first semester and was later diagnosed with demyelinating polyneuropathy, a rare neurological disorder that involves the deterioration of the myelin sheath covering that protects the nerves within the brain.
“Since there had been bad bacteria in my brain region for so long [with Lyme disease], my antibodies got confused, turned rogue, and turned against my myelin sheaths,” she says. “I was very confused, because I had been sick with Lyme before but never so severe to warrant an IV or anything. So it was incredibly overwhelming.”
Jacqueline has been in and out of treatment for the disease throughout the majority of her time at Penn, relying on a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line in her upper arm to provide her with essential antibodies for the better part of freshman, sophomore, and junior year. While Jacqueline admits that the illnesses have undoubtedly impacted her college experience, she made it clear that she does not want the sickness to be the focus of her life.
“You lose yourself because your entire identity becomes your disease,” she says. “I really never wanted that. I am someone who has all of these accomplishments, and on the side I’m also sick. It’s an important facet of my identity but when people say, ‘Wow, she’s so accomplished for a sick person,’ I hate that. I get it all the time.”
However, it was her illness that inspired her to pursue bioengineering at Penn. “Throughout the process, I realized the lack of knowledge in the medical field about Lyme and how much is missing from scientific research in that field and how having even just a little bit more knowledge about the molecular mechanisms of the disease and the genetics could impact the patients’ lives.”
There is no doubt that Jacqueline is capable of making significant scientific breakthroughs in her future. Her love for all things medicine is easy to see; her eyes lit up when she described a project for her major that she was presenting on that day. She blasted through enough scientific jargon to make my head spin and showed unparalleled enthusiasm for DNA sequencing. “It’s fascinating to me,” she says. “It’s so cool. DNA is crazy.”
The only thing that may thrill her even more than working in the lab is the Penn Band. Jacqueline joined the band her freshman year as a clarinet player, saying that it was the only club that immediately made her feel like she belonged.
“I got to this rehearsal, didn’t know a soul, and they started playing Accidentally in Love,” she says. “We dance a lot in band—not complicated, just left to right—but like everyone started dancing, the music was really loud, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is my home.’ These people were crazy and fun and had their own culture that was crazy and I just wanted to be a part of that.”
Four years later, Jacqueline has, indeed, become a part of the unique culture that is the Penn Band. She loves to heckle. “I just really enjoy the stress release,” she says, “running around and just yelling at unsuspecting basketball players.” Her personal favorite heckling moment was picking on a Temple basketball player whose name resembled ‘Charlie Brown’ a little too closely.
Jacqueline got the opportunity to project her big personality even more by voicing the Homecoming Day halftime show over the loudspeaker at Franklin Field this year. It was an incredible feeling, she says, to hear her voice “reverberating around the stadium.” She counts that moment as one of her favorites at Penn.
Jacqueline thrives in slightly hectic, slightly disjointed environments. The band rehearsal room is loud, full of chatter and the various warm up instrumental sounds that make up a rehearsal. Yet, as soon as the director cues them, all chaos ceases and the craziness is consolidated into a single masterpiece. Between every song the band practiced, Jacqueline would turn away from her sheet music to share a smile or laugh with the person next to her.
Jacqueline embodies a confidence that one could only hope to obtain after four years of Penn, as well as an unfaltering sense of humility and gratitude. “I’ve always considered myself very lucky,” she says, realizing that many others with similar illnesses would not have had the resources to go to school and pursue an undergraduate degree.
Despite her accomplishments, she even questioned whether she truly deserved to be nominated for Penn 10 in the first place because of all the “incredible” people that she has met during her time here. “Just being around a diverse group of people with their own talents and own interests and lives that are so amazing,” she says. “I love it! I don’t know how you’d get this anywhere else.”
Read about the rest of the students profiled for 34th Street Magazine's Penn 10 project here.