Posted on January 26, 2024 by College of Sciences

#AwesomeAlum
Jayce Rhodes

Jayce Rhodes

By Pelle Muñoz

Meet Jayce Rhodes '18, '21, a UTSA chemistry graduate and senior associate scientist at Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Growing in a small suburb in the north side of San Antonio, Jayce knew that college in-state was the most attainable and desirable option for her. She also appreciated UTSA’s close proximity to home, a factor that would heavily influence her choice to attend.

"UTSA is steeped in culture with a welcoming energy, and I just couldn't sacrifice that to go anywhere else," said Jayce. "The support and sense of community is unmatched, and I think that comes from the diversity that drives the heart of UTSA."

Initially, Jayce started at UTSA in 2013 as a finance major. However, she felt an affinity for chemistry and began taking chemistry courses as electives because she felt drawn to the area of study as a potential career option. Jayce knew that chemistry could lead to beneficial outcomes for society and is used in drug discovery to help those with medical needs—needs she felt were being unmet within her own family.

When Jayce took her first chemistry exam at UTSA, she received a failing grade which was far lower than she'd anticipated. However, this humbling experience provided her with the motivation she needed to change her major and focus fully on studying chemistry.

"Typically, I would feel destroyed and discouraged over failing, but instead, my excitement and thirst for learning only grew," said Jayce. "It was a weird but eye-opening experience as a freshman."

As her academic career progressed, Jayce grew accustomed to the demands of studying chemistry and even gained confidence with organic chemistry, a course that is known to be challenging.

In 2018, Jayce began working in the lab of Stanton McHardy, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and director of the Center for Innovative Drug Discovery (CIDD). The mission of the CIDD is to support the advancement of drug discovery research and education at the University of Texas Health San Antonio (UTHSA) and UTSA with the goal of translating discoveries from basic research into innovative therapeutics that alleviate pain and suffering, improve the quality of life for patients and save lives. McHardy and other mentors in his lab like Hua-Yu Wang and Mike Tidwell introduced Jayce to concepts such as organic synthesis, medicinal chemistry, and career development in the pharmaceutical industry.

In addition to the education Jayce gained at UTSA, she also made lifelong friends. "I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to build a strong supportive network around you," she said. "Moving away from home for the first time and starting a career in a brand-new city is challenging, but leaning on friends and family has been crucial to me not just surviving but thriving and enjoying life."

Currently, Jayce is employed by Bristol-Myers Squibb, a global biopharmaceutical company whose mission is to discover, develop, and deliver innovative medicines to patients with serious diseases. She started as an associate scientist with the company after graduating from UTSA in 2021. Currently, she serves as a senior associate scientist.

Jayce’s work involves the early research and discovery of small molecules, specifically protein degraders for oncology indications, which can be applied towards targeted drug therapy for proteins found in cancer cells. Jayce also utilizes innovative computational approaches to solve problems. This side of her work includes structure-based design, computational docking models, and AI and machine learning to discover higher quality molecules that have high rates of success.

"No other subject gives you the tools to manipulate matter at the atomic level. It is still surreal to me that part of my job is designing and then actually making physical connections or bonds between atoms to create a molecule to potentially one day treat patients."

Jayce emphasizes the importance of finding your mentors and seeking out their support. She also encourages students to never stop asking questions. "I can't count the number of times I asked a question I wasn't confident about, and a classmate—or even a professor— said they were so thankful I asked because they were wondering the same thing."

Jayce hopes to continue her work in chemistry to better the lives of those who grew up in similar circumstances. "I have my dream job in the most beautiful city in the country," she said. "I plan to work hard to continue to develop and progress through the career that UTSA helped me obtain."

During her time at UTSA, Jayce found insurmountable value in the idea of pushing forward "con ganas," a phrase that Hector Aguilar, chemistry professor at UTSA, popularizes among his students. The sentiment means having confidence and gusto, and emphasizes the importance of resilience and dedication. The meaning resonated with Jayce, so much that she engraved the phrase into her class ring.

"UTSA teaches their students how to be resilient. How to take challenge head on and walk out of the other side wearing the battle scars of organic chemistry with pride."

— College of Sciences
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