Professor of Biological Sciences at Hunter College
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“I think scientists, especially those who are underrepresented, are ashamed of what we don’t know, but we’re also ashamed of what we do know. Other people get this feeling like you’re being too aggressive or you’re being too tough, and so I think it’s important to build up your own self-esteem and be comfortable making people realize that you know more than they’re giving you credit for.”
Dr. Jill Bargonetti has always found herself in two worlds. In one, she is on stage expressing emotion and stories through dance. In the other, she is leading her lab group using molecular tools to design new ways to tackle difficult to cure cancers, especially those disproportionately affecting Black communities. Now, as Hesselbach Professor of Biological Sciences at Hunter College, she has merged those two worlds.
Though Jill is a successful scientist today, if you asked her high school classmates how they remember her, they would respond that Jill was an incredibly talented dancer. Jill found joy not only in the creativity and energy of dance but also in the way it fit into her lifestyle and friendships. “The world of dance and arts is, in some ways, more inviting for people of color,” she explains. “It’s an expected place where you belong and fit more than in a scientist’s career.” Jill found it easy and natural to talk about her dance career at social gatherings and parties throughout these early years.
“Genetics helped me to understand my own truth as a person of color and just understand that heredity was somehow what was controlling the way I looked”
Dance wasn’t the only thing that drew Jill’s interest at a young age. She also found herself developing interest in DNA and genomics when she learned how key they were to discovering her own heredity and identity. “Genetics helped me to understand my own truth as a person of color and just understand that heredity was somehow what was controlling the way I looked,” she says. To Jill, understanding the details of what DNA was and how it controlled her identity made more sense than sociological constructs of race. Even though she felt this interest in science growing, none of her close friends shared it. Despite there being other students that were involved in science-related extracurricular activities after school, Jill never felt fully welcome or invited into those areas because she was a Black woman in a historically white space.
In college, Jill chose to focus on dance, joining the prestigious Conservatory of Dance at SUNY Purchase as a dance major. However, she later auditioned for and was selected to dance in the Harlem-based professional dance company Sounds in Motion under the acclaimed dancer and teacher Dianne McIntyre. Jill was thrilled to pursue a career in professional dance. However, SUNY Purchase would not allow her to dance for Sounds in Motion and the Conservatory of Dance at the same time because she would not be able to meet the Dance Program’s graduation requirements. So Jill had to abandon her dance major and choose something else to study. Still wanting a college degree, she decided to tap into her interest in science and pursued an undergraduate biology major instead at SUNY Purchase’s Biology department.
Although she was now studying biology, Jill did not give up her passion for dance and spent most of her time rehearsing and performing as a part of Sounds in Motion in Manhattan. However, her advisors at SUNY Purchase, Drs. Joe Skrivanek and Elysse Craddock, had an eye for recognizing gifted students and immediately noticed her talent during her freshman year. At their suggestion, Jill decided to participate in a laboratory-based summer internship at NYU. She loved the experience, and although she stuck to her dance career, she also kept in mind how much she had enjoyed working in a research lab. When the time came for her to work on her undergraduate thesis for her biology major, she decided to continue working at NYU at a different lab which aligned with her thesis interest more, while also pursuing a professional dance career in the city. With the help of her advisors, Jill applied to graduate school and later earned a waitlist spot as a graduate student in molecular biology at NYU.
While the waitlist decision was pending, Jill worked as a research technician at Rockefeller University. As a technician, she expected to take on a full research project, but to her frustration, she was instead given mundane work, such as washing dishes. Jill’s intellect didn’t go unnoticed by the people around her, though, and she remembers having many vibrant conversations about science with her lab’s postdoctoral fellows. When Jill received her acceptance letter from NYU, they were encouraging and suggested she leave her current job as a technician to pursue her graduate degree as soon as she got off the waitlist. Coming from a family unfamiliar with the world of academia, she wasn’t used to the idea that students can actually be paid to attend graduate school, and she now puts an emphasis on increasing awareness about graduate opportunities amongst her own students. “When I realized that if I had this intellect I could go to graduate school and actually get paid, I didn’t feel entitled at all – I felt like it was a gift,” she says. Jill then began her thesis work with Dr. Richard P. Novick, with whom she studied DNA replication in bacteria.
“When I realized that if I had this intellect I could go to graduate school and actually get paid, I didn’t feel entitled at all – I felt like it was a gift.”
Jill’s interest in DNA replication led her to Columbia University as a postdoctoral fellow, where her postdoctoral advisor, Dr. Carol Prives, introduced her to ongoing projects involving the tumor suppressor gene p53. Little did she know she was at the forefront of studying one of the now most recognizable genes associated with cancer. Over the next decade or so, p53 research was all the rage, and in 1993, the gene took its place as the Molecule of the Year. Since p53 is a tumor suppressor gene whose loss of function has been shown to cause cancer, researchers have attempted to reactivate or restore normal p53 function. However, this goal proved elusive, and scientists began to lose interest in p53-based cancer treatments. Before long, the droves of scientists interested in p53 research and the frequency of p53 studies being published began dwindling.
“So even though it’s one of the most studied proteins, and there are a zillion papers on it, I’m still gonna keep studying it. I’m still passionate about it.”
One of the few that stuck with it is Jill. Her lab today at Hunter College still studies the p53 gene, but from a fresh angle: her research group targets cells with dysfunctional p53 with the goal of killing them instead of restoring healthy p53 functionality. “It’s kind of like targeting a bomb that might have a honing device, and then you can follow it and sniff it out,” she explains. “The goal is to just bomb one particular region.” However, destroying cells with mutant p53 isn’t as easy as it seems due to the number of complex pathways involved. Although Jill doesn’t think one approach is going to work for all pathways and different mutations, she hopes a few solutions might work on a large group of cases. “So even though it’s one of the most studied proteins, and there are a zillion papers on it, I’m still gonna keep studying it. I’m still passionate about it,” Jill says. The goal of her lab is to eventually impact patient populations in cancers such as breast cancer, where she is specifically focusing on triple negative breast cancer, a particularly hard to treat variation especially prevalent in the Black community.
Despite now running a flourishing cancer research lab, Jill hasn’t forgotten her love for dance and art. She has succeeded in merging science and art in an elegant way through teaching Choreographing Genomics, a course that aims to teach genome information flow and cancer biology through postmodern dance and spoken word. In the class, Jill and her students explore complex concepts using their body movements relative to others, for example differentiating between a covalent bond and a hydrogen bond by holding hands or touching slightly. “I really love exploring how the mind’s eye can think about scientific paradigms, but also teach science in a different way than a didactic textbook approach, because there’s so much to what goes on in the cell that’s movement based, complex and directional,” Jill explains. The style of dance is based on the choreo-poem art form created by dancer and teacher Ntozake Shange (also a previous student in Dianne McIntyre’s Sound in Motion) in her acclaimed piece for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, and involves combining spoken word and dance in an expression of emotion and story. However, Jill adds her own twist to this – in some cases, students must translate scientific concepts onto others by choreographing them, a feature Jill calls ‘choreostorming’. This allows them to both learn and communicate biological ideas through movement.
Today, Jill is comfortable in both her world of dance and science. “Where before I might have been a little awkward in the science world and might also have looked a little awkward in the dance world, today I know where I am,” she says. If you pass by Central Park and happen to catch a Choreographing Genomics class in session, you can witness Jill sharing her interconnected passion for the arts and science with her many students.
“Where before I might have been a little awkward in the science world and might also have looked a little awkward in the dance world, today I know where I am.”
Jill Bargonetti, PhD, is the Hesselbach Professor of Biological Sciences at Hunter University. Faculty profile
by Ishani Ganguly