By Rachel Stark
The scientist, these days, doesn’t play much basketball.
Her home court is now her lab, her uniform a crisp white coat reaching down to her knees. Memorized experiment protocols have replaced memorized game plays. Victories, in most cases, no longer garner cheers.
She works in silence on this January afternoon, hurriedly writing in a notebook and glancing occasionally at a timer nearby. The Oklahoma City sun shines through the window, highlighting the sterile white walls and assorted chemical-filled jugs decorating the shelves around her. On her desk sits a pile of journal articles, their titles featuring terms like “macrophage-stimulating protein” and “recombinant retroviruses” and “RON receptor tyrosine.”
It’s a language – and a world – in which Jaime Fornetti thrives.
Four months into a post-doctoral fellowship with a breast cancer research lab at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, Fornetti is searching for a route to target breast cancer bone metastasis. At 31, she has already worked in some of the most influential labs among some of the greatest leaders in this realm of research – people tackling questions about a disease estimated to claim more than 40,000 American lives in 2015.
In a week, she will reunite with one of these leaders, Pepper Schedin, who runs a research lab on postpartum breast cancer at the Oregon Health and Science University Knight Cancer Institute. There, Fornetti will put the finishing touches on a project started when she worked for six years in Schedin’s lab, previously located in Colorado.
But her visit to Portland goes beyond business; it’s a rare chance to reconnect with a special mentor. Schedin first welcomed Fornetti into her lab while the young scientist pursuing her Ph.D. wasn’t far removed from days balancing time in the classroom with time on the basketball team at Albion College. And although Fornetti left her playing days behind when she graduated from Albion, and although Schedin – a self-proclaimed “science nerd” – struggles to differentiate one sport from another, a collaboration developed between the two scientists that is more common in athletic arenas than laboratories.
Science, for centuries, was an individual sport.
Bright minds plowed their own paths to breakthroughs, not needing a team effort for light-bulb moments. Research was personal – one person per project. Science labs didn’t mesh with social butterflies.
Then came the Information Age. Advancements in technology led to an explosion of information that a single scientist simply couldn’t absorb. The study of science, silos and all, demanded an evolution; collaboration among experts became crucial.
Team science slowly began to emerge in the lab. But evolution takes time and teamwork takes training – the type of coaching most scientists didn’t yet have.
Fornetti, of course, wasn’t aware of any of this while growing up in the small town of Iron Mountain on Michigan’s upper peninsula. With a dad in construction and a mom working for the school district, Fornetti for most of her life didn’t know anyone could build a career in research. Most days the young girl, thrilled by discovery, hoped to become an archaeologist.
Sports entered the picture early. As soon as she could swing a bat, Fornetti played baseball in the yard with her dad. There was no softball team in town, so she hit the field with the boys until she was 12. She later picked up soccer and basketball, but when high school came her athletic choices were pre-determined: She joined the basketball and track teams because women’s soccer and softball weren’t offered.
Fornetti’s interest in basketball and science grew during those formative years. She decided to pursue both at Albion College in south central Michigan, where her schedule quickly filled with daily practices, biweekly games, a full slate of classes and preparation for medical school. Fornetti majored in biology and minored in chemistry with a concentration in neuroscience. Outside of the classroom and the court, Fornetti spent time in the lab, performing genetic experiments on fruit flies. She became known as the “Energizer Bunny.”
On the basketball team, Fornetti, a guard, established herself as a leader. During timed miles, Fornetti was the one who told stories to struggling teammates to distract them from the pain. She caught the eye of the track coach and later joined the team for two seasons, running any sprint event shorter than 400-meters.
“Jaime was always positive,” said her basketball coach, Doreen Carden. “She knew how to balance her academic side and her athletic side – she really embodied the true meaning of student-athlete. And I don’t say that about many kids.”
Fornetti, like many athletes, cherished the team camaraderie. She relished the challenge of working with different people with different personalities toward a common goal. That lesson gave Fornetti an unexpected advantage when she joined the Schedin research lab in Denver after she graduated in 2006.
Pepper Schedin knew nothing about sports.
Basketball or baseball, forward, linebacker or shortstop – the words to her didn’t mean a thing.
But she noticed that Fornetti brought something unique to her breast cancer research lab in Denver when she joined in 2008. The young scientist was sharp, of course, and paid close attention to detail. The characteristic that really stood out, though, was the way she united the diverse people around her. Not only would she write a smart experimental plan for her own project, but she would offer to review the plans of other scientists in the lab. She would nudge her peers toward strategic thinking. How can you make this experiment as interpretable as possible? She would ask. What would your controls be?
Schedin saw Fornetti stop for “everybody and anybody” to help them sort through the details, ensuring they wouldn’t waste time, money or resources. To the veteran scientist, the rookie seemed mature with this knack for teamwork already developed. “It’s a difficult thing to learn, especially in science,” Schedin said.
Schedin may have lacked sports knowledge, but she still spotted the source of this skill: Fornetti had acquired it through athletics.
“Before, I didn’t think of an interaction between sports and science,” Schedin said. “Now I appreciate team sports from a scientific perspective.”
Her appreciation grew in 2011 when Schedin applied for and received a $100,000 grant from the Kay Yow Cancer Fund in partnership with The V Foundation for Cancer Research. The grant is awarded annually to a cancer research facility in the host city of the NCAA Women’s Final Four Basketball Tournament. The 2012 tournament was held in Denver, also home to the University of Colorado Cancer Center and, at the time, Schedin’s lab.
Fornetti was working in the lab when Schedin walked in and hurried to tell her the news. “Jaime! We got money from the N… C… A… A…” Schedin spoke each letter slowly, as if they were foreign.
Fornetti stared blankly, confused. “Pepper, I don’t know what that is.”
“Yes you do,” Schedin prodded. “It has something to do with basketball.”
“Oh, you mean the NCAA,” the younger scientist realized, laughing. “Like, college sports.”
Fornetti began to explain. She told her mentor about college sports’ governing body and its connection to her basketball career. In return, Schedin told her mentee what she knew about the research-supporting missions of the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, formed in honor of the former North Carolina State University women’s basketball coach who died from breast cancer, and The V Foundation for Cancer Research, a tribute to the former NC State men’s basketball coach Jim Valvano.
The organizations that supported Fornetti’s favorite game were still supporting her life in a new way.
“She conveyed how important it was that we received this money,” Schedin later recalled. “To see this connection for her was just powerful.”
Schedin’s lab, which focuses specifically on pregnancy-related breast cancer, used the grant money to start a collection of breast tissue from women in their reproductive years. They hope it will help identify biomarkers of risk. Fornetti used some of the acquired tissue in her individual projects, which she will soon complete in Oregon.
Just before Fornetti accepted her new postdoctoral fellowship in Oklahoma City last June, Schedin moved her lab from Denver to Portland. The Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health and Science University had recruited Schedin for her skills in building teams.
Schedin welcomes people of all types whenever she searches for the next collaborative scientist to join her new group. But the candidates who get her most excited, she admits, are the ones whose résumés include college sports.
The timer on Fornetti’s desk beeps, and like the start of a new half, she snaps into action. She pulls on her blue gloves and walks to the refrigerator to retrieve a plate of cells. Then she’s off to the incubation room to see the fruit of this day’s cell-staining, solution-stirring, calculated labor under the lens of a microscope.
She turns off the lights before analyzing the cells – a trick she discovered after trial and error. Then, in the darkness, her answer appears: Clusters of fluorescent green dots light up the microscope display, confirmation of a successful cell staining.
She grew these cells over a period of 10 days on a matrix designed to resemble bone, all in an effort to better understand the way breast cancer can spread to and damage that part of the body. It is her latest project in her new research home at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, a lab run by breast cancer scientist Alana Welm.
Though she’s only been with her lab since October, Welm says Fornetti has already proven to be resourceful and collaborative. Early on, she volunteered to present the project she developed in Schedin’s lab to her new Oklahoma City teammates, in case it would be helpful to their research.
As Fornetti studies her cells, another scientist walks up behind her, peering at her screen. “You see the osteoclasts better in the dark?” The woman asks. “Maybe that’s why I have trouble seeing mine.”
Yes, Fornetti explains. It was a simple solution – just a flip of the light switch – but it solved a pesky problem in her experiment.
Perhaps it would do the same for the others.
Somewhere in the new Oklahoma City home Fornetti shares with her husband, a special basketball sits in a display case in a not-yet-unpacked box. It’s emblazoned with the logo for the 2012 Women’s Final Four in Denver and signed by Jim Valvano’s brother.
Schedin first caught sight of it during the weekend of that Final Four, the year her lab received the research grant in conjunction with the tournament. She was still no sports fan but this commemorative ball had her hooked. So the accomplished scientist, outside of her comfort zone, had to work up the guts to ask for it. “You have to hear why I need this ball,” she told organizers.
Schedin knew all along what she would do with it. But she let the years pass without a word and kept the ball in her lab office.
Then, last spring, the mentor finally made the pass. Schedin walked into Fornetti’s graduation party holding the ball in its display case. The younger scientist beamed.
“I was hoping all along it was mine,” Fornetti said.
“Who else’s would it be?” Schedin replied.
Once she settles into her new home, Fornetti knows exactly where she’ll put the ball. It will go in her basement, next to other sports mementos, mostly from Albion…for now.
Fornetti still has a few years to go before completing her postdoctoral research. But she can envision the day when she will run her own research lab. She will build her own team of collaborators and give young scientists their first shots. She will fill her office with test tubes and laboratory notebooks and journal articles.
But first she will make space for the basketball.