Scientist Janina Jeff Awarded the 2020 American Society of Human Genetics Advocacy Award

Janina Jeff posing near the Brooklyn Bridge
Janina Jeff, senior scientist at Illumina

Janina Jeff, PhD, MS is the 2020 recipient of the prestigious American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) Advocacy Award for her work as host and executive producer of In Those Genes, described as “a hip-hop inspired podcast that uses genetics to uncover the lost identities of African descended Americans through the lens of Black Culture.” The award includes a plaque with a $10,000 prize, and honors individuals or groups who have exhibited excellence and achievement in applications of human genetics for the common good, in areas such as facilitating public awareness of genetics issues, promoting funding for biomedical research, and integrating genetics into health systems.

No stranger to being the first African American person to achieve in certain arenas (she’s the first African American to graduate with a PhD in Human Genetics from Vanderbilt University after earning a B.S. in biology from Spelman College), Jeff is the first African American scientist, and the youngest, to win the ASHG award. Previous awardees include Marie Claire King, the woman who discovered genetic breast cancer screening.

A senior scientist at Illumina, a company at the intersection of biology and technology, Jeff is also a 2019 Network Journal 40 Under Forty Achievement Award honoree as well as the recipient of Spotify’s 2018 “Sound Up Bootcamp” award.

“Dr. Janina Jeff’s groundbreaking podcast In Those Genes has provided fundamental insight into genetics and the exploration of the lost identities of African-descended Americans through the lens of Black culture,” said ASHG President Anthony Wynshaw-Boris. “She is also an inspiring leader with a deep commitment to educating others and is a very important spokesperson in human genetics for a wider audience beyond scientists.”

“In the wake of COVID-19, the podcast has quickly evolved as a forum dispensing scientific and medical truths and dispelling rumors and conspiracy theories circulating in the Black community on social media,” said Dana Crawford, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Population and Quantitative Health Services, Case Western University, in her nomination letter. “In Those Genes addresses issues of direct interest to a group often neglected in general science or genealogy podcasts: the Black audience. So far in its first season, In Those Genes has discussed direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing and genetic ancestry estimates, comparisons of Black-owned DTC genetic testing companies, Ancestry.com’s romanticization of genetic ancestry and slavery, and participation in the All of Us Research Program, among other topics related to genetics. All of this is done with Black and current cultural references that effectively explain complex definitions and jargon.”

I recently caught up with Jeff to learn more about her award.

TNJ.com: What does this award mean to you? 

Janina Jeff: Receiving this is award is cultural shifting. ASHG is the largest professional organization in the world. When I started this journey of podcasting, I had always feared what my scientific peers (mostly white) would think of my creative work, and specifically, the ways which I chose to educate the community as not “professional.” I was afraid that our show would be dismissed and possibly even shamed. Now, to be recognized as an honoree for being MY AUTHENTIC SELF is surreal, and I couldn’t be more PROUD of the entire “In Those Genes” team that made this possible.

TNJ.com: What is the relevance of your podcast to what’s going on in the science field today?  

Janina Jeff: Science has traditionally been inaccessible to people of color due to several side effects of colonialism and systemic racism. Our main mission is to make science more palatable. We do this using  Black culture analogies to translate the patriarchal and euro-centric style of science language and education to the Black community. Ultimately, we want to make genetics more accessible to mend the distrust that has been lost in medical research for the Black community.

TNJ.com: What feedback do you get from listeners about the podcast?

Janina Jeff: Most of listeners love the music and Black culture analogies from the show. In fact the show has been incorporated in several colleges, and a few high school STEM curriculums. Most listeners tell us they feel “seen” and that means the world to us. Our goal is to make something that is truly “for us and by us.” In Those Genes is produced by two Black women.

TNJ.com: You are the first Black person to get the award. Do you think this will open doors for more Black people to enter the science field and have rewarding careers?

Janina Jeff: Yes, being the first is a story I relive so many times. It’s a bittersweet thing, but ultimately it is an opportunity for the next generation.

TNJ.com: What’s next for you? 

Janina Jeff: This is our first series of funding for Season 2, so we are looking forward to getting into production for the next season and sharing the show more broadly with the world.