New alumna overcomes tough odds to survive and graduate

Jennifer Slaton | 2013 Alumna, Chemistry
School of Science at IUPUI 

Jennifer Slaton celebrated her 27th birthday recently in a grand style with a few thousand of her friends—at her college graduation. Most in the audience had no idea of the struggles it took for her to reach the milestone of earning her diploma.

Jennifer Slaton

Slaton and post-doctoral student Merrell Johnson examine fibrin images in the lab of Horia Petrache, Ph.D., physics.

It was an emotional day for the newly minted chemistry graduate from the School of Science. Not only was it her birthday and Mother’s Day, it was a day both Slaton and her mother thought they would never live to see.

“I’m not sure I’m able to fully fathom it yet. It’s not really hit me yet,” Slaton said. “There was a time when I thought I would never graduate. It’s all been kind of struggle, but I’m slowly letting myself believe it.”

Enrolling at IUPUI in 2009 represented a fresh start for her, a chance to rebuild her life after replacing tragedy with triumph. In 2007, Slaton, a Type-1 diabetic, fell into a diabetic coma for a week, a condition that left her with memory loss and more than a year of therapy, which included training herself to speak again.

At the time of the coma, she was only a few courses away from earning a bachelor’s degree in dietetics (the medicinal study of nutrition) from another university. In a second tragic twist, her mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. Her mother has since recovered and sat proudly with other family members as they watched Slaton walk in her cap and gown. 

“When I decided to enroll at IUPUI, it represented a new beginning for me,” Slaton said. “I had to work so hard to recover that it became a very personal decision. I decided I was going to work through college and pay for it myself, with no loans. IUPUI offered me the flexibility, the location and programs I wanted, so it all seemed to make sense.” 

“Graduation is the end of a nine-year struggle for me, but I’ve tried to go about my education as if the coma was not relevant to my life,” she added.

Slaton, a graduate of Westfield, Ind., High School, approached her second chance with the same zeal of a recent high school graduate entering college. “I was a little harder on myself than I should have been,” disappointed when she didn’t get straight As, she admitted.

However, she is thankful for the ability to travel during her education and participate in real research, studying the role of proteins in the blood-clotting process. She also worked in the biophysics laboratory of Horia Petrache, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics and a staunch supporter of the value of the undergraduate research experience.

“I began (at IUPUI) as kind of an introvert and didn’t necessarily seek out friends,” she recalled. “I gained a lot confidence by working in the lab.  I was able to design experiments on my own. The research experience, and being able to get involved here, helped me know more about what I wanted to do with my career. 

She plans to continue her research career, but “the idea of pursuing a Ph.D. after nine years is a little scary,” she said.

For now, Slaton is content with enjoying her accomplishments thus far. She continues to try to get her research published in an academic journal. She’s fine with a little uncertainty right now, assuming the hardest part of her life is over.

“If I’ve learned anything from this coma and almost dying, it’s the importance of taking everything one day at a time. That’s what I intend to do.”

Learn more about Jennifer's story in this recent Indianapolis Star article.