A Geneticist with a Voice

by Savoy Staff

Janina Jeff in the lab at Illumina.

Scientist and podcast host Janina Jeff wants to increase access to science and health

When Dr. Janina Jeff talks about growing up in New Orleans and discovering her love of science, she can’t help but smile. “I was so obsessed with science fairs and competing in them,” she says. In high school, her competitive nature and science skills took her all the way to the state level. “For me, that was the Superbowl of science fairs.”

Dr. Jeff’s introduction to genomics took place at Spelman College, where she aced a course in genetics and began working in a genetics lab. From there, she went on to become the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in Human Genetics at Vanderbilt University. Throughout her time in college and graduate school, she volunteered at public schools, bringing scientific concepts to kids and getting them excited about science. Dr. Jeff continued to mentor even after she moved to New York City for a post-doc in population genetics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

In 2015, she got a call to join Illumina, a global biotech company that makes sequencing technology. From diagnosing disease in critically ill infants to developing new treatments for cancer, Illumina’s goal is to help improve human health by unlocking the power of the genome. As a Bioinformatics Scientist, Dr. Jeff uses computer science to analyze biological data. Her work has supported the development of tools that determine a person’s risk for common diseases like diabetes or breast cancer.

In addition to her crucial work at Illumina, Dr. Jeff works to make science something non-scientists can understand.

“I feel that science has an access issue,” says the 35-year-old geneticist. “We’ve created a culture that excludes people from being a part of science.”

In 2018, Spotify announced a podcast competition to uplift the voices of women of color. “The Spotify Sound Up Bootcamp was all over Black Twitter and my group chats. Everyone was talking about it.” Dr. Jeff’s competitive nature kicked in, and she pitched an idea for a genetics podcast. After several rounds of eliminations, she beat out 18,000 applicants to win just one of three spots. With $10,000 in prize money, In Those Genes was born. It’s a podcast that “uses genetics to decode the lost histories of African descendants through the lens of Black culture.” Dr. Jeff provides fact-based information “in an entertaining way that’s personal, relatable, and inclusive.”

Her podcast guests include genetic counselors, founders of DNA testing companies, and even her own family members. The episode “Skinfolk, Kinfolk” landed on Indiewire’s Best Podcasts of 2020 while “Dat Rona” received the Third Coast Audio International Festival’s 2020 Impact Award. Last year, Dr. Jeff was listed on The Root 100’s “Most Influential African Americans in 2020” and awarded the 2020 Advocacy Award by the American Society of Human Genetics.

“The overarching goal that goes beyond the podcast, or even my work at Illumina, is to create a more inclusive ecosystem across the entire scientific research spectrum. The more populations we study, the more discoveries we find, the more we improve medicine—the more we make things accessible and relatable for everyone.”

Ultimately, Dr. Jeff can see a future where every newborn is sequenced at birth, and people will receive personalized medicine based on the data in their genome—not on the info they’ve checked in a box on a form. Social descriptors like “gender” will have no place in science. “That’s one way we can start on a journey toward equality.”

To learn more about In Those Genes or to listen to an episode, go to inthosegenes.com.


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