Jeanne Garbarino
Photograph by Mario Morgado

Becoming a scientist

Jeanne Garbarino

It takes a certain kind of person to make kids from all backgrounds feel at home in the world of science. And sometimes you have to dance on the internet.

By Caitlin Shure

She cruises from bench to bench, observing the goings-on of her lab. Currently, Jeanne Garbarino’s high schoolers are combing the inside of their cheeks for chunks of genetic material that they’ll submit to a PCR machine—a step that will later allow them to scrutinize their own genes. The exercise is part of a program, helmed by Garbarino, that invites students from local schools to spend a day on Rockefeller’s campus. She is doling out supplies and advice when a few of her scientists-in-training abruptly switch course: They would like to record a dance routine for TikTok. It’s not part of the experiment, but Garbarino obliges.

In her role as director of RockEDU Science Outreach, Garbarino welcomes spontaneity—both because she wants her visiting students to enjoy themselves and because occasional silliness is part of the learning process. And so she dutifully dances alongside the teenage girls presently occupying the university’s classroom lab. A discussion of bioethics will follow, as will pizza.

“I’m a 12-year-old in a 41-year-old woman’s body,” says Garbarino. “I think that’s what makes me good at this.”

But in fact, Garbarino is good at her job for many reasons. For starters, she possesses an infectious affection for the material. She discusses biology not in the manner of a stodgy professor instructing pupils but like a close friend sharing highlights of her favorite TV drama. She’s a nerd, but she’s also thoroughly cool.

Outgoing and outspoken, Garbarino has made a name for herself and for RockEDU, an outreach initiative that runs a variety of programs to promote scientific literacy and appreciation in K-12 students. More than a series of lessons, the program aims to dissolve the barriers between science and the rest of society. (Although in-person programs have been suspended since the spring because of COVID-19, RockEDU has temporarily shifted many of its programs online, combining Zoom sessions with at-home experiments conducted with supplies mailed to students’ homes.) It’s a job that requires a huge amount of multitasking: In a given day, Garbarino might train mentors, write a grant, match students to laboratories, tackle a budget, and conduct a science workshop.

But the best parts of the job are those that lead to the kind of science-infused silliness that appeals to Garbarino’s inner 12-year-old. They are also the type of activities that, when she was actually 12, she would have loved.

Garbarino (right) helping students
Garbarino (right) helping students from her LAB Jumpstart program build a Geiger counter. Photograph by Mario Morgado

Garbarino became accustomed to making executive decisions at an early age. She received her first set of house keys in third grade, right around the same time she started babysitting for local kids. Dinner was set at 6 p.m., but beyond that she was free to roam the neighborhood as she saw fit. And in Norwood, the Bronx community where Garbarino grew up, ample adventures awaited within walking distance.

Proudly groomed in the pre-internet era, Garbarino regularly corralled neighborhood friends to play handball, peruse candy shops, or shred the local skating ramp. She performed the role of big sister to myriad children, whether related by blood or by block. In this role, she honed her leadership skills and learned the importance of community support. It was a childhood that, Garbarino says, she wouldn’t trade for anything.

Although rich in camaraderie, Norwood didn’t offer the educational opportunities a future scientist might hope for. A working-class neighborhood, it was what Garbarino would now refer to as “under-resourced,” meaning it didn’t provide the experiences and tools that more privileged students take for granted. So when she developed an early and intense interest in science, Garbarino looked outside the classroom to sate her intellectual hunger.

“I would walk to the public library on East 205th Street and copy pages out of the encyclopedia for hours at a time,” she says. “Yeah, I pretty much loved science from birth.”

Still, it wasn’t until college that Garbarino formally pursued this passion. At SUNY Geneseo, a well-regarded but mostly unknown state college about 40 miles south of Rochester, she was drawn to biochemistry and began working part-time in a lab devoted to cholesterol metabolism.

She learned to pipette, run electrophoresis gels, and conduct the other basic sorcery that one performs as an undergraduate researcher. She knew she wanted to become a scientist.

Accordingly, during her senior year she did her best to cobble together a grad school application. “I wasn’t sure what I was doing and I had nobody helping me,” Garbarino recalls. “I just wrote a letter. It was probably terrible.”

Terrible or not, the application landed her an interview at Columbia in the Department of Nutritional and Metabolic Biology. Though had learned her way around a lab, Garbarino had no clue how to conduct herself during an interview. Upon arrival, she felt out of place; and her interviewer, the molecular cardiologist Jeanine M. D’Armiento, sensed her discomfort. She questioned Garbarino about her background, eventually asking whether she had family members in science or similar fields.

“My parents sell tickets for Metro North,” Garbarino answered. D’Armiento responded in kind: “Jeanne, my dad is a bus driver.”

Columbia did not accept Garbarino that year. But D’Armiento offered her a job as lab technician. The ensuing months were a crash course in laboratory etiquette and a gauntlet of tough love.

“Dr. D’Armiento let me know when I wasn’t meeting the bar. She pushed me and made me learn the concept of accountability,” Garbarino says. “I will never stop being grateful for that.”

When Garbarino reapplied the following year, Columbia accepted her with an apology.

Keenly aware of the importance of strong mentorship—particularly in the sciences—Garbarino strives to provide both practical learning and emotional encouragement to her trainees. Over the past eight years, she has groomed a robust network of RockEDU mentors who offer guidance to young students from diverse backgrounds. One of several programs under the RockEDU umbrella, an initiative called LAB Jumpstart teaches laboratory skills to kids from underresourced communities. The program also pairs students with “advocates” who provide extracurricular advice, ranging from how to write a professional e-mail to tips on the top campus snacks.

“That extra mentorship helps the students believe that an institution like Rockefeller can be a home for them,” says Garbarino. “It also helps them develop their own identities in science and see that this environment is for all types of people.”

“Our goal is not to create an army of researchers but to show that science is a part of our society. We want to instill trust in science and scientists.”

Other RockEDU programs focus on K-12 educators and on science curriculum development. But Garbarino’s mission isn’t just to educate or even inspire; she wants to restructure the conversation around science, dispelling the notion that biomedical research, and the institutions that practice it, are elitist and inaccessible. Such perceptions, she says, foster public skepticism of science and have real implications for policy. In this sense, RockEDU aims to function not just as training ground for future researchers, but also as a vehicle for cultivating scientifically informed citizens.

“Our goal is not to create an army of researchers, but to show that science is a part of our society. We want to instill trust in the scientific process and in the scientists who participate in it,” says Garbarino.

For this reason, the RockEDU curriculum includes explorations of science’s role in the world. Students studying their DNA, for instance, will also debate the social and ethical implications of widespread genetic testing: Is it advisable to submit your genes to an online ancestry company? Who should have access to this data? Is it appropriate to use gene-editing technology on humans?

It’s a grand mission, even if carried out largely on a local scale. RockEDU’s flagship event, Science Saturday, annually draws more than 1,000 New Yorkers in non-pandemic times, filling an entire lab building with hands-on exhibits designed and run by Rockefeller scientists. By establishing connections between researchers and city residents, such programs emphasize that science is not the purview of a certain category of person but of all cultures and communities.

At Columbia, Garbarino gradually came to appreciate her own place in the world of science. After rotating through a range of research areas, she narrowed her focus to metabolic mechanisms in yeast. Specifically, she investigated the process by which excess fat kills the organism—a phenomenon called lipotoxicity that may be relevant to understanding human medical conditions.

“In yeast, I could examine things at a very narrow scale. I loved looking at how biochemical pathways were working and which genes were getting turned on and off,” says Garbarino. “I just loved probing, tinkering, and exploring.”

Garbarino’s parents were less jazzed. Civil servants with government pensions, they saw their daughter living on a measly student stipend, with little job security, and they worried.

“My mom had a hard childhood—she was homeless several times in her life—so it was difficult for her to understand why I would take the luxury of continuing my education,” Garbarino says. “That tension sometimes got in the way of being able to talk about why I was doing what I did.”

For kids from underresourced communities, the barriers to pursuing science are more profound than a dearth of classroom microscopes. Students contend with cultural obstacles that persist even as one breaks into the highest echelons of academia. So while Garbarino was on the cusp of obtaining her doctorate, her parents were questioning why she still didn’t have a real job.

After receiving her Ph.D., she began a postdoctoral fellowship at Rockefeller in the lab of Jan L. Breslow, head of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism. There, Garbarino studied how cholesterol moves around inside cells. Simultaneously, she began exploring alternative ways of applying her scientific mind. She regularly contributed to Rockefeller’s student-led campus newsletter, launched a science blog, and created a discussion series.

Through these projects, Garbarino became deeply interested in how to convey scientific ideas to nonscientists and, more broadly, how to expand the perimeters of the scientific community. She visited local schools, took students on lab tours, and volunteered for every outreach opportunity that presented itself. And that, she says, is where she found her sweet spot. During the final stretch of her postdoc, Garbarino asked Breslow for advice on how to translate her passion for outreach into a real job—ideally one at Rockefeller. Responding like a true scientist, Breslow counseled: “Write a proposal.”

A few months later, Garbarino found herself in the office of Rockefeller’s then president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne. Proposal in hand, she underscored the need to portray the human side of research and described outreach as not just a source of education but a form of community building. “I told him: This is the kind of program that Rockefeller needs, and I want to be the one to lead it,” she says. Two days later, Garbarino became the new director of science outreach, taking over a program that, even on campus, had largely flown beneath the radar.

Today, Garbarino’s scientific training continues to inform her approach. Each experiment is guided by a theoretical model that she created to optimize the educational experience. At the core of the model sit two groups: people with formal expertise in science and newcomers who want to engage with it more deeply. A successful outreach program, says Garbarino, is one that meets the goals of both groups.

A Rockefeller postdoc, for instance, might want to enhance her teaching skills; and a young student from the Bronx might want to better understand how genes give rise to disease. Garbarino’s job is to develop a program that satisfies both. In theory, the task is simple. In practice, however, it involves a dizzying array of logistics.

“Even when you’re being very careful, a program could fail miserably,” she say. “But from that failure, you learn and adapt.” In this respect, she notes, outreach is a science in and of itself: It often requires successive rounds of iteration and failure before things run smoothly.

Garbarino’s meticulous scientific approach clearly contributes to the success of RockEDU, which has expanded considerably under her leadership. The program now reaches thousands of students each year through in-house, in-school, and online activities—making good on its mission to welcome an expanded cohort into the scientific community. As a former Rockefeller postdoc and a grown-up kid from the Bronx, Garbarino embodies the two groups that her model strives to serve. And RockEDU, in turn, serves Garbarino’s own unique interests.

“Through outreach I can marry my love of science with my love of people,” she says. “It’s kind of perfect.”