Jill Belluomini can gracefully conquer both a molecular dynamics simulation and a pirouette.
Her major and minor at NIU—chemistry and dance—represent her two passions. As different as they may seem, to her, they’re intertwined.
For Belluomini, life is all about learning, discovering, inspiring.
“I think she feels it’s her responsibility to make the most of what she has around her,” says her friend and mentor Robin Marchiori, a 1995 NIU graduate and co-owner of Cary-Grove Performing Arts Centre, where Belluomini began dancing at age 8.
“Plus, she’s just funny, kind and brilliant.”
Belluomini, a 22-year-old Cary native, will graduate this May as NIU’s 2020 Student Lincoln Laureate, an honor reserved for the university’s top senior. The Lincoln Laureate Award is given to an outstanding senior from each of Illinois’ four-year universities for excellence in both curricular and extracurricular activities.
She’d run across campus between dance classes in Gable to her science classes in Faraday Hall, often arriving at organic chemistry in a leotard, her hair in a bun.
She’d always planned to major in chemistry, but sought a university where she could also minor in dance. She threw in a couple more minors of biology and mathematics along the way.
“I always loved science, and I always had a knack for it,” Belluomini said. “I wanted to go a little deeper to understand why things work the way they work. I knew I wanted to do research. I wanted to help discover things and learn more. It was more about never wanting to stop learning and helping other people learn.”
She remembers being assigned famed scientist Maria Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, as part of a “really big terrifying” fifth-grade project at Saints Peter & Paul School in Cary. Students pretended to be part of a wax museum, reenacting their famous characters.
Belluomini chose Curie for another project in seventh grade and has looked up to her ever since.
After grade school, she homeschooled with the support of her parents, Brian and Diane. She took a couple classes through a homeschool cohort, but said, “For the most part, I taught myself.”
A rare find
Applying to graduate schools now, Belluomini aims to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry and says she likely will remain in academia. Whatever path she takes, she hopes to mentor and inspire more women to pursue the fields of science.
Those who know her say she’s already doing that.
Among an endless list of activities and involvement on campus, Belluomini has served as a Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) tutor as part of ACCESS Tutoring and Support Services. A University Honors student, twice awarded as an Honors Scholar, she’s also part of NIU’s Belong in STEM Scholars Program. She’s volunteered for STEMFest and serves as president of NIU’s Alpha Chi Sigma Delta Nu chapter and as a member of the NIU Chemistry Club.
She’s done all this while not only taking dance classes, but also performing in several shows. Having grown up dancing at Cary-Grove Performing Arts Centre, she taught there after high school. The studio became “her second home.”
“I don’t know where Jill finds the time to do her highest-quality classwork, involvement in departmental activities with both chemistry and dance, and her outreach activities (not to mention a job),” said Lee Sunderlin, Ph.D., associate professor and director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
“More impressive than simply being the top student in several classes is the range of fields she has mastered,” Sunderlin said of Belluomini, who has a near-perfect GPA. “Even in the sciences, it is rare to find a student who is equally adept at the biological side of chemistry and the mathematical/physical side.”
Sunderlin and Belluomini’s research mentor, Ralph Wheeler, Ph.D., professor and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry chair, nominated her for the Lincoln Laureate Award.
Wheeler asked Belluomini to join his research team during her first year at NIU. Interested in computational chemistry, Belluomini’s research involves analyzing the structure of a protein and its mutation.
“That’s the bare bones idea of what I’m doing,” she said.
There’s so much more, though.
“Jill Belluomini owes her success as a student and a researcher to hard work, an excellent memory, exceptional problem-solving skills and extraordinary creativity,” Wheeler wrote in his nomination.
“She is not only a brilliant classroom student, but she is also uniquely creative in research. As a second-year college student, Jill already showed skills that I would expect from a mature graduate student.”
It’s that hard work and creativity that connects Belluomini’s two loves.
While dance naturally allows her to express herself, so does her research, she said.
“With research, you have to be really creative, and I don’t think people realize that as much,” she said. “You have to think about a problem in one sense and then you have to think about how you want to solve it. There are a lot of things that don’t go right. Dance has helped my creativity grow.”
Encouraged to go to NIU by Marchiori, who doubled majored in performing arts and communications at NIU, Belluomini said she’s felt as valued in NIU’s School of Theatre and Dance as the chemistry department.
“Dance is more than just a hobby to me,” she said. “It really is a part of who I am. Being able to continue dancing here is amazing. They treat their minors like majors.”
Although the Lincoln Laureate Award came as a shock to her, those who know her say it’s no surprise really. “I think the discipline and hard work is really naturally to her,” Marchiori said. “It’s just who she is.”