Mallick described Jessica’s reporting as an “anti-process.” More likely, her approachability and genuine interest in her subjects masked that process, which was just good beat reporting. She frequented Slab City’s Oasis Club (“where the old-timers go,” Mallick says), drank coffee with them at the solar-powered Internet café, and attended community meetings. She ended up profiling a variety of people, whose lives she documented through photos, videos, and notecards she had each of them fill out. She filmed Karen Webb bathing nude in Slab City’s hot springs, and Justin Davis, a 36-year-old reliving his lost teenage years in the skate park he built in an abandoned swimming pool. She photographed “Cuervo,” “houseless on muleback for 15 years,” and chronicled the 80th birthday party of Leonard Knight, the artist who created “Salvation Mountain,” a 50-foot-high, cross-topped clay mountain that is Slab City’s most prominent landmark.

When it was time to put the project together for the website she designed and coded herself, Jessica let the dynamic personalities shape the look and feel. Visually, it’s minimal, with a simple grid of 16 boxes. Click on a box and a window pops up with more information. Sometimes it’s just a picture and an index card, usually written by the subject himself—a design element that gives the digital page a real-world feel. In a few cases, there’s a video. There’s very little about Jessica herself, which her professor, Jeremy Rue, says was intentional. She also chose to headline the page with a simple sentence: “Squatters, Snowbirds and Wanderers of Southern California’s Desert.” People who come to the site, much like the people who come to Slab City, can explore and figure it out for themselves.

Slab City Jessica’s award-winning Master’s project looked simple, but used multiple media formats to tell the stories of fourteen Slab City residents.(Jessica Lum / Courtesy of the Lum family)

Jessica had learned that her cancer had returned in October 2011, just before she was scheduled to make her first reporting trip to Slab City. She went anyway. By her final semester, however, the disease was taking its toll. There were more frequent doctor’s appointments, but she still didn’t tell her classmates or professors what was wrong, alluding only to “health problems.”

Jessica was determined to walk at graduation, though she was in so much pain she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to. She did.

“She finished strong,” Anna says.

“She finished strong,” Bob repeats.

But Jessica wasn’t finished. KPCC, a Southern California public-radio station, was expanding its multimedia team. Grant Slater, one of the station’s visual journalists, came across Jessica’s work and reached out to her. “I was really impressed by her roundness as a journalist,” he says. “It’s not often that you get somebody right out of grad school who can speak to all these mediums.”

She moved to Los Angeles and began work—and more chemo. The treatment made her sick; she struggled to finish her first assignment. She drove herself to the emergency room, and a doctor there told her to go back to Sacramento.

About a week after she started at KPCC, she told her new co-workers that she had “health issues” and had to move back home. They wouldn’t find out how serious it was until a few months later, in August, when Jessica started talking about her condition on Facebook again, with a post that shocked classmates and colleagues who weren’t aware of her illness. “Friends, I am not doing well,” she began. Her lungs were filling with fluid. Her heart had stopped; she was in the hospital when it happened, and was resuscitated. But it was time, her doctor said, to go into hospice. Chris Tanouye, Jessica’s first boyfriend whom she met during their freshman year at UCLA, proposed to her at her hospital bedside, according to the Daily Bruin. Anna describes him as “totally devoted” to Jessica, especially at the end. He declined to be interviewed.

Unusually, Jessica’s condition improved for a short time, and she was able to go off of oxygen. She brought a tank with her to the ONA banquet—which she was determined to attend, of course—though she never needed it. Slater saw his former hire in the lobby, “radiant and beaming,” but “I could tell she was not having the easiest time of it,” he says. “Things happened really quickly after that.”

Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.