How have I come to be a hero/shero? It seems to me just yesterday that I thought I would never be able to answer the "what do I want to do when I grow up" question. My father tells me I never really did discuss any major goals. I was always told to do my best. So that is what I did, sometimes. Other times, I was simply involved in the growing pains of the time and relating with friends. I worked at what interested me. And if things did not interest me, I didn't work very hard at them. It just happens that the two subjects that interested me the most were dance and genetics. I pursued my interest in both at the Bronx High School of Science, and I think that they are inseparable as to how I view science: Movement is a key player in any molecular genetic process that I think about.
So why did I become a biologist? Sometimes I think this happened while I was not looking. Clearly I had an interest in genetics in high school. I just didn't think it would become my career. Being "a biologist" means that you have decided to spend many years as an academic and perhaps your whole life.
To be honest, I still do not think I ever "decided" to become a biologist. I simply found myself hooked on generating data and answering questions that had not been answered before. The decision that research would become my life occurred after I received a Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Fellowship. I now consider myself a scientist who knows a lot about a few key areas that concern the molecular biology of cell growth. In short, I am a molecular biologis
In college, I changed my major twice, first from biology to dance and then back to biology again. When I began college, I was not a dance major. Because of this, the question I was frequently asked was "are you a DEO student?" DEO stood for Division of Educational Opportunity. It was the affirmative-action program at the State University of New York, Purchase, and most people of color who were not in an arts program were assumed to be in this program. No one knew that I had gone to two of the most prestigious public schools in New York City (Hunter Elementary and Bronx Science). No one assumed I was bright and interested in science. They assumed that someone was trying to help me along, and therefore I was allowed to be there.
After I became a dance major, I danced with a Harlem-based dance company called Diane McIntyre's, Sounds in Motion. Because I had joined a dance company, I was told that I had to leave the dance program at Purchase. So I changed my major back to biology and graduated with honors from that program.
In the end, I decided to go to graduate school because I was not happy with my day job as a laboratory technician, and dancing was not satisfying all of my intellectual needs. Being a Black woman in science means that you are in a significant minority in your workplace. During graduate school, I did not have a Black woman "biologist" role model to talk with. But, I did always remember that there was one Black woman biology teacher at Bronx Science (although she never taught me). This helped me to see the career possibility.
My advisor/mentor during graduate school was very supportive and taught me the keys to critical thinking at the bench. My co-workers at that time were mostly postdoctoral fellows, plus the laboratory technician, and they were always respectful of my ideas and abilities. The clean-up staff was mostly Black people whose comments like "why do you want to be a part of the white world?" made me uncomfortable. And the occasional distinguished scientific visitor, who would mistake me for the clean-up staff, also caused me to question my choice. Also, although I enjoyed working at the bench, at parties when asked what I did I would say I was a dancer. That answer never stopped the conversation flat and besides, I did still dance.
After earning my Ph.D. from New York University with a thesis on control of DNA replication, I went on to postdoctoral training at Columbia University to study how the protein p53 was able to behave as a tumor suppressor. This was the time when I began to call myself a scientist. I developed a passion for my project that I had never before had for my scientific work. It became a creative academic topic for me. Enthusiastically, I wrote a grant proposal that I submitted to a number of different funding sources.
It was then that the subtle racism that I had encountered since college hit me like a ton of bricks. People began telling me that the grant I would receive would be the one targeted toward minorities. They assumed that this was the least competitive. On the other hand, the Damon Runyon Fellowship was open to all, and was known to be highly competitive so I would probably not get that one. Well I got it! But, I did not get the highly competitive award targeted toward minorities because there were others in that group who were more worthy than myself. I did get an honorable mention for the targeted minority award, so at least they thought of me. At that point I knew that I had to stay in the business of science! I was talented and I had to help to get rid of the stereotype of the affirmative-action handout. I am still working to help people rise above this bias.
I choose to work at the City University of New York (CUNY). In part I made this choice because Hunter College of CUNY is a Minority Institution and the biological sciences department is part of the Research Centers in Minority Institutions program of the National Institutes of Health. There is comfort in being able to serve as a role model to students of color as well as comfort in working with other minority faculty members. The scientific infrastructure here is strong. I also wanted a hard money salary because I have a family and need to know that there will be a paycheck even if I do not obtain grant funding. I have two sons and a husband. I want to maintain a personal life. Other career choices might have made this more difficult.
I have been fortunate to continue to maintain a funded laboratory that remains productive. The future is tomorrow and I hope to continue to learn and grow while helping others do the same.
Biosketch: Professor Jill Bargonetti-Chavarria is an associate professor with the Graduate Center at CUNY and the Hunter College biology department. She has received numerous awards and honors including the Association for Women in Science Outstanding Women Scientists Award (2001), NYC Mayor's Award (2001), and the Presidential Early Career Award (1997). For further information, please send e-mail to Bargonetti@genctr.hunter.cuny.edu.