Ilaria Iacobucci, PhD, has received several awards and citations for her research on the pathogenesis of leukemia, but her latest accolade, the Research Staff of the Year award, carries both personal and professional significance.

“This means a lot because it is more ‘human,’ in addition to being about scientific work,” Iacobucci said. “It feels good to be appreciated by people you work with every day.”

Iacobucci is not only grateful to colleagues for nominating her, but she also believes they deserve the award.

“I think other people from my lab made the big contributions,” Iacobucci said. “Milestones are the work of many.”

The Research Staff of the Year award is presented each year by James R. Downing, MD, St. Jude president and CEO, to an outstanding non-faculty scientist, lab specialist or technologist working in either a lab-based scientific research area or a shared core research facility. A committee of faculty members and basic science executive leaders volunteer their time to select the recipient following a review of all nominees. Award criteria include contributions to research, teamwork, reliability, community service, work attitude, mentoring, and literature authorship.

The broad impact of staff scientists

The research staff community at St. Jude includes 730 people performing more than 150 roles across 38 departments. Iacobucci is a staff scientist in the laboratory of Charles Mullighan, MBBS, MD, a member of the Department of Pathology. Her research focuses on genomic alterations that cause high-risk leukemia subtypes.

“Ilaria’s work has led to multiple transformative discoveries in acute lymphoblastic and myeloid leukemia,” Mullighan said. “She is an asset to St Jude, and I am delighted to see her receive this award.”

The colleagues who nominated Iacobucci have credited her with a number of accomplishments and capabilities:

  • Contributions to more than 15 publications since 2015, serving as either a first author or a co-corresponding author on five of the papers
  • Development of new experimental approaches that are making a broad impact, including a range of technically demanding full-length RNA single-cell sequencing approaches not previously available at St. Jude
  • A rare mastery of all types of data generation and analysis in her field, including basic genomic analysis, bioinformatics analysis, experimental modeling, and analysis with human samples
  • Generosity with her time in support of other researchers’ projects, many of which have resulted in publication in high-impact journals
  • A growing number of Pediatric Oncology Education (POE) and Rhodes College Summer Plus trainees who have flourished under her mentorship

New ideas from the oldest university

Iacobucci originally came to St. Jude in 2013 for a three-month fellowship as a visiting scientist from the University of Bologna in Italy, where she was an assistant professor in the Department of Specialistic, Diagnostic and Experimental Medicine. It soon became clear that her potential to contribute and grow in the Mullighan lab could not possibly be contained within a 90-day window.

“I asked for several extensions that were all approved, but I couldn’t stay here as a fellow while still being part of the university,” Iacobucci said. “I already had a good position in Italy, so coming here wasn’t something I needed to do; it was something I wanted to do.”

This decision was not easy for Iacobucci. The University of Bologna was more than her employer. The 900-year-old institution had also been her home ever since primo anno (freshman) biology lectures all the way to postdoctoral research in hematology.

“It was my dream to go to Bologna,” she said. “At first I was not sure if I wanted to become a physician or a researcher, and then I understood that translational research would probably give me more chances to help others in a different way. I have also worked in a clinical and research lab, and I’ve always had a close connection to the patients.”

A delicate balance of ballet and science

Iacobucci grew up in a small town midway between Rome and Bologna, where she attended a liceo scientifico (equivalent to a STEM high school) and spent all of her spare time studying and performing ballet.

“I was kind of a professional dancer, and I had to balance my studies with ballet,” she said. “I learned to manage my time pretty early, and learning choreography was good for my memory. But at school, I was interested in scientific subjects—anything medical related.”

Intellectual curiosity and technical fearlessness

With access to resources and colleagues at St. Jude, Iacobucci has continued to flourish.

“All of our studies that were published, all of the opportunities for collaboration and the invitations to speak at conferences―St. Jude gave me this visibility,” she said.  “It is like a paradise of research, for me.”

While Iacobucci credits St. Jude for her professional growth, her principal investigator praises her for improving the research environment for others.

“She is an exceptional scientist who combines intellectual curiosity, technical fearlessness, hard work and generosity to her lab mates and colleagues,” Mullighan said.

“It’s always stimulating mentoring students in the lab,” Iacobucci said. “They are curious and want to learn techniques and approaches, but I also teach them how important it is to do something that you like, especially in this field, because that pushes you to always do better.

“The award was a big and beautiful surprise for me,” Iacobucci said. “I do my job in the best way I can because I love it and believe in its mission to improve knowledge and hopefully cure rates. I strongly believe in the importance of collaboration and this is why I am always willing to help others.”

More winners

The runners-up for the Research Staff of the Year award are Lee Ann Van de Velde, research specialist in the Thomas Lab (Department of Immunology); and Emily Walker, associate scientist in the Hartwell Center Clinical Applications Core Technology Lab.