Imagine the fate of 1.6 million mice weighing on your shoulders. Now consider that they may be imperative for finding a vaccine for COVID-19.

Such has been the job of Jill Homer Stewart (Political Science, History, ’97) since late February. As director of federal government relations and California state affairs for The Jackson Laboratory (JAX), Stewart was visiting her native Golden State to work at the biomedical research institution’s West Coast facility and lobby on its behalf in Sacramento.

After extending the trip to include a reunion with friends in Chico, where they visited their favorite campus haunts and “bought out the bookstore” to restock their Wildcat gear, she was boarding a plane to return home to Washington, DC, when her business trip took a sudden turn. California’s first case of coronavirus had been diagnosed.

Stewart quickly pivoted her plans to work with federal, state, and local authorities to ensure JAX’s four facilities could continue operations as “critical infrastructure” and has been working nonstop ever since.

In her mind, the lab’s work could not be more essential.

“As a human being, I relate to its mission to find cures for diseases that affect my family and friends,” she said. “As a professional, I find the process like solving a Rubik’s Cube. I keep moving pieces around until it all comes together—it’s incredibly rewarding.”

As the world repository for research mice, three of JAX’s locations, including two in Maine and one in Sacramento, are breeding genetically modified mice to help find a vaccine for COVID-19. A lack of a reliable animal model on which to study the virus and test vaccines has been a major roadblock in medical research to date. Using innovative techniques in reproductive science, JAX has been rapidly expanding its COVID-19-susceptible mouse colony and delivering specimens to the biomedical research community worldwide.

Every single mouse in the JAX vivarium is seen once a day, and one of Stewart’s many roles was to ensure employees could continue to care for 1.6 million mice in Sacramento that could unlock a vaccine for the virus. 

“We have heroes in operations, security, and IT that have worked around the clock to ensure our facility is safe and clean for employees—and that the shipments of mice to research facilities are uninterrupted,” she said.

Mice, Stewart explained, have long been used by JAX as surrogates for humans and their diseases. With genome sequencing and genetic engineering, JAX can create mice with the exact mutations human patients have and observe them throughout their lifetimes to see how environmental, pharmaceutical, or other variables affect their health and lifespan.

In addition to its COVID-19 research, JAX is conducting an extraordinary rescue effort to collect mice from other labs and freezing their sperm and embryos to preserve mouse strains for projects suspended by the pandemic. In preserving and returning those specimens to researchers when things return to the new normal, it hopes to minimize impacts to science into cancer, diseases, and other life-transformational breakthroughs.

Another one of Stewart’s tasks was working with the Food and Drug Administration to expedite JAX’s application to process COVID-19 tests in Connecticut. When the state public health agency was overwhelmed by test volume, the lab’s Farmington campus stopped all internal research in order to test patient samples and study the virus for broader epidemiological purposes. Now testing for both Connecticut and Maine, ultimately, it’s helping test more people, faster and expediting progress toward better treatments and a vaccine.

Through it all, Stewart continues to draw on the skills she developed at Chico State, both inside and away from the classroom.

Portrait of Jill Homer Stewart
During her undergraduate years, Jill Homer Stewart took a year off to work in the South Pacific before returning to Chico and adding a second major—history—to her planned degree in political science. The combination has proved to be invaluable, she said. (Courtesy photo)

“Learning how to relate to people, especially those who hold different opinions and beliefs, and finding common ground in which to come together to get mutual goals accomplished is probably responsible for 90 percent of my career success,” she said, adding that perhaps no cocurricular activity shaped her as much as being a member of Alpha Delta Pi.

“The Panhellenic recruitment process, in which one speaks to a total stranger for up to 15 minutes, is probably the best job training I could have for this position,” she said. “I can speak to anyone for 15 minutes, even if they have shown zero interest in the topic, a circus is taking place around us, and one of us is having a wardrobe malfunction.”

Stewart followed her dream to live and work in Washington, DC, for an internship in 1997, having never been to the nation’s capital before and despite once being told that it was “no place for a woman.”

“Can you imagine?” she said. “Luckily, I have a defiant streak.”

She began working in the office of Rep. Gary Condit (D-California) and said that the coursework and research required by her history degree helped immensely as she learned to dig through pieces of legislation. She gives a special shout-out to professor emeritus Charles Geshekter, “for demanding all that time in the library.”

Her internship paved the way to many more years on Capitol Hill, which she said proved to be just like the US Army slogan of “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” She worked for Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Indiana), from whom she learned the appropriations process. She then worked as a contract lobbyist for a trade association, learning about biomedical research, animal agriculture, and food safety. Prior to starting at JAX three years ago, she also worked for SeaWorld Parks & Recreation, where she supported its mission to preserve wild spaces for marine animals and clean up trash and plastic from the ocean.

Six years ago, Stewart also began operating an indoor playground for children 6 months to 6 years old. A creative and fun outlet, she figured that she would eventually leave government work and enjoy being with children all day. But now, amid the realities of COVID-19, she shuttered the playground in March and made the painful decision not to reopen. Instead, she’ll continue focusing her energy on the incredibly meaningful work at JAX.

As the pandemic continues, Stewart is now navigating impacts of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act on her institution, upcoming COVID-19-related legislation, and future funding appropriations and policy. With so much of her work now focused on supporting global and local communities amid the coronavirus, her 20-year career has never felt more meaningful.

“I never thought that I, a political science and history major, would be helping to fight a worldwide pandemic,” she said. “The mission of The Jackson Laboratory is one that speaks to me personally and professionally. … I’m not a scientist but I try to get them the tools we need for the cures we depend on.”