Jill BelluominiJill 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.

“Being able to continue dancing here is amazing. They treat their minors like majors,” said Lincoln Laureate Jill Belluomini, shown here at NIU’s 2018 Spring Dance Concert. Source: Northern Illinois University

“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 eight.

“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.

You could say Belluomini hit the ground running—and dancing—upon transferring to NIU from Harper College in Palatine.

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.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.

“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.

“She is not only a brilliant classroom student, but she is also uniquely creative in research,” said Ralph Wheeler, professor and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry chair. Wheeler nominated Jill Belluomini for the Lincoln Laureate Award. Source: Northern Illinois University

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 Scholarshe’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.”

“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.”“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.

‘Uniquely creative’

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.

“I wanted to help discover things and learn more. It was more about never wanting to stop learning and helping other people learn,” Jill Belluomini said of her decision to pursue chemistry at NIU. Source: Northern Illinois University

“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.”

While dance naturally allows her to express herself, so does her research, she said.It’s that hard work and creativity that connects Belluomini’s two loves.

“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.”

NIU’s 2020 Lincoln Laureate finalists and nominees:

• Matt McCoy of Downers Grove, first finalist. Double-major of mechanical engineering and music performance-jazz. McCoy excelled both inside and outside the classroom as part of NIU’s nationally ranked Supermileage team, the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology’s 3D Maker SpaceNIU’s Jazz Ensemble, the McKearn Fellows Program, the Mechanical Engineering Honors Society Pi Tau Sigma and more. McCoy’s nomination included nine recommendation letters from faculty both in the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology and the NIU School of Music, as well as his academic advisor and professional connections he’s made through an internship and his extensive involvement on campus. “Clearly it takes something special to be able to do all of that academic, technical, artistic, research and professional work simultaneously,” wrote Nicholas Pohlman, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

• Brooke Lavite of Waterman, finalist. Double-major of English with a literature track and philosophy. Among her many achievements, activities and awards, Lavite has earned numerous scholarships and won the Baker Prize for Best Undergraduate Essay twice. She has served as treasurer of the Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society, editor-in-chief (2019-20) and managing editor (2018-19) for the student-run Stonehouse Academic Journal and a member of the Committee to Improve Undergraduate Academic Excellence. “Occasionally a department is gifted one of those students whose dedication, drive and knowhow make her essential to the connectedness, production and well-being of the student-body as a whole. How, we find ourselves asking, will we get on without her? Brook Lavite has most definitely become that student for the English Department over the past several years,” wrote Ryan Hibbett, assistant professor of English.

• Claire Miller of Rockton, finalist. Double-major of political science and philosophy, double-minor of history and communications. An NIU Presidential Scholarship winner in 2017 and awarded the NIU Congressional Internship Scholarship in 2020, Miller has been part of the University Honors Program, the NIU Competitive Debate Team, the Competitive Forensics Team, the NIU Federal Relations Intern program, the Model United Nations and more. She also serves as the undergraduate representative on the NIU Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. “Her academic record is as strong as they come; she has an extensive record of co- and extracurricular successes; and she has been a humble and selfless leader on campus in ways that could be, but should NOT be, overlooked,” wrote J. Mitchell Pickerill, chair of the Department of Political Science.

• Brad Beyer of McHenry, nomineeEconomics major, biological sciences minor. Speaker of the Student Government Association Senate, Beyer’s involvement and service to the community stand out, along with his academic record. He’s the Balanced Man Scholarship Chairman for Sigma Phi Epsilon, ambassador for the NIU Foundation’s Huskies United, vice president of the Economics Student Association and the Economic Department’s representative to the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Student Advisory Council. “Brad has demonstrated a great deal of commitment and loyalty to NIU by his efforts to enhance the experience for students here,” wrote  Carl Campbell III, professor and chair of the Economics Department.

• Mark Raupp of Crystal Lake, nomineeHistory major and part of the Secondary Educator Teacher Training Program. Raup served in the U.S. Navy from 1992-98. A returning student after working as a development manager for an insurance company for six years, Raupp came to NIU to “realize a dream of becoming a teacher, of mentoring students to appreciate the value of history and helping them to connect past and present,” wrote Rosemary Feurer, associate professor in the History Department. He was a student teacher at Woodstock North High School this year and provided seminar and ongoing instruction on tactile learning for visually impaired student in his teaching cohort at NIU. He won NIU’s Student Engagement Fund Award and the Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society Golden Key Award in 2019.

This article originally appeared on niu.edu.