As an NCAA scholar-athlete, Jaime Fornetti never dreamed of becoming an elite scorer or flashy floor general. Instead, she challenged herself to shut those players down.
It’s that mindset that ultimately led Fornetti to Oklahoma City. No, not as a participant in last week’s Women’s NCAA Tournament at Chesapeake Energy Arena, but right down the road at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation.
Once an NCAA Division III basketball star, Fornetti now spends her days staring down a far more aggressive foe — metastatic breast cancer.
Fornetti, 31, works in OMRF’s Immunobiology and Cancer Research Program under the guidance of Alana Welm, Ph.D., where she studies how breast cancer cells metastasize, or spread, to the bone.
“Cancer isn’t just one big blanket disease, it’s very individualized,” said Fornetti, who is six months into her postdoctoral fellowship at OMRF. “The great challenge is figuring that out and understanding what makes it different for each person.”
And she doesn’t mind the grunt work cancer research entails on the road to success. She also thrived in the less-glamorous roles on the hardwood.
She always gravitated to the gritty side. Diving for loose balls, pushing people around and hauling in rebounds offered a more fulfilling experience for her on the court.
“I liked the challenge it presented while still allowing me to kind of fly under the radar,” she said. “That still drives me in the lab.”
Fornetti always excelled in school in tiny Iron Mountain, Mich. “Basketball was the only big sport for girls at my school,” she said. “Fortunately, I found success playing it.”
So much success, in fact, she was named the scholar-athlete of the year for women’s basketball by the Michigan High School Athletic Association. Then college basketball programs came calling.
“I had already applied to Albion College because of their strong pre-med and biology programs,” she said. “The basketball team was pretty good, too, so it was the best of both worlds for me.”
At Albion, Fornetti excelled in the classroom and on the court, reeling in numerous scholarships and honors en route to graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in biology with a chemistry minor. This paved the way for grad school, where she earned a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology from the University of Colorado.
She excelled on the basketball court at Albion, as well, earning the 2005 conference defensive player of the year award and first-team all-conference the following season. She helped lead the best team in school history in 2004-05, as the Britons posted a 25-5 record and went 14-2 in league play, advancing to the NCAA Division III Sweet Sixteen.
And Fornetti was unflappable under pressure, setting the conference record for consecutive free throws made—17, a record that still stands.
“Jaime epitomized the student-athlete,” said Albion women’s coach Doreen Carden. “She gave everything her all, and you could really see it on the court.”
Other than grit and determination, her team-first mentality plays a key role in her research success. The lab, she said, really is a team environment.
Welm echoed the sentiment, “Jaime is a team player, which reflects on her previous experience in college athletics. She’s very resourceful. If she needs to learn something, she just gets it done. She has a real ‘can-do’ attitude.”
Teamwork is also a quality Fornetti plans to carry with her when she accomplishes the next of her many goals, which is to eventually have her own lab. She’ll remain focused on metastasis, always playing defense, looking for cancer’s soft spots and any place she can deflect its path.
“For me, it’s kind of addicting to try to figure out a problem that we don’t know much about. We learn one thing, and 10 more questions arise,” she said. “I like that there is always a new stone to look under for answers. Just like in basketball, the challenges never stop.”