Jill Haag Reflects on her Career at UW/McArdle

Jill Haag

Jill retired in June 2020 after more than 32 years of service at UW-Madison.  She recently answered some questions about her life and work at McArdle

Why did you decide to study science? 

As a child, our house was full of animals.  My dad use to take us to the Vilas Zoo, still one of my favorite places to visit in Madison.  I always thought that I would become a zoologist and travel the world or a veterinarian taking care of stray and sick animals.

As a child, who was your biggest influence?

It wasn’t who but what.  I grew up in Mount Horeb, WI, 20 miles west of Madison.  The public library in Mount Horeb was my home-away-from-home.  Our family did not have a lot of money or resources, so the library was a place I could use to escape my siblings and spend hours reading about anything and everything.


Jill with Michael Gould in 2018.

How did you end up studying and/or working at the University of Wisconsin? 

While I was in high school, I spent a lot of time in Madison, on the UW campus, and hanging out on State Street.  I never really considered going to college anywhere else.  As an undergrad, I got work study opportunities, one as a research assistant to a zoology graduate student working with wild deer mice (they really know how to bite!) and another working for the administrative/laboratory staff of Dr. Ernest Borden at the UWCCC. Dr. Borden’s business administrator had previously worked for Michael Gould, and that connection led me to the Gould lab.  I started working there in January 1988.

What did you do at UW/McArdle?

Starting early in my career, I assisted with rodent chemoprevention/therapeutic carcinogenesis studies, lots of hands-on animal work. Always wanting to learn more, I ended up becoming the “utility” player in the lab, helping anyone who needed an extra set of hands or who was willing to teach me something new.  Over time, I was able to start writing and editing manuscripts, and assisting with grant submissions, working on budgets, etc.  Since I knew a little bit about a lot of things in our lab I eventually became the lab manager, although I always enjoyed working on the research projects the most.  I emphasized a team approach to our research projects so that there would always be someone in the lab to help or take over if needed.  Much of my time over the years was devoted to supervising students and staff as we were conducting rodent carcinogenesis experiments that increased our animal colony to a population of ~10,000 rats/mice at one point.

Who did you work with during your tenure?

My favorite collaborators were Michael and Christina Newton.  We had many, many grant and project meetings over the years, and I very much enjoyed spending time with them.  It was always fun and interesting when Randy Jirtle was around. We worked together on a grant submission to NASA, and I assisted him with filming a segment for a Korean broadcast. The mice cooperated when he was filming, not so much for me.  I have known Howard Bailey for many years and find him to be an incredibly knowledgeable, approachable and kind person. Most recently, we collaborated with Jenny Gumperz when we needed an immunology expert for our Mcs5 project.  It was a great pleasure to work with her and Nick Zumwalde; I learned a lot from both of them as I had no background in immunology.  These are just a few of the many individuals I have had the pleasure of working with over my career.  Thanks so much to all the others I have not mentioned.

What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment at work?

Jill with graduate student Amanda Henning (Gould Lab)
Jill with graduate student Amanda Henning (Gould Lab)

I was so very fortunate to have participated in almost every major accomplishment our laboratory achieved.  Early in my career, I published the anti-tumor effects of perillyl alcohol using rat carcinogenesis models and completed the preclinical research which led to Phase I/II clinical trials for a variety of human cancers here at UW-Madison.  Currently, perillyl alcohol is licensed by WARF and is being developed to treat brain cancer by NEONC Technologies Inc.  In addition, I actively participated in every aspect of a multi-year project that led to publishing the first rat knockout models.  It required over 22,000 rats to identify three unique genetic mutants, Brca1, Brca2 and Apc.  We made local and national news with this achievement, and it was very rewarding to be co-first-author of the publication in Nature Biotechnology in 2003.  I was also directly involved with producing over 200 unique recombinant congenic rat lines to identify small genomic regions containing various mammary carcinoma susceptibility (Mcs) loci. The use of comparative genomics between rat and human led to the identification of human breast cancer risk alleles MCS5A1 and MCS5A2.  We further characterized the immune cell component in human breast ductal epithelium leading to human clinical trials to determine whether bisphosphonates may activate immune cells within the breast to prevent cancer development in young women at high genetic risk.  Most importantly, I have mentored ~100 undergraduate students over the past 30 years.  I have written numerous letters of recommendation and have been a job reference for many.  We helped pave the way for many to become doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers, physical therapists, veterinarians, researchers, teachers, business owners, etc.  I am always excited to hear from those who helped to support our labor-intensive research projects over the years and what they are doing now.

How have things changed over your tenure? 

Our laboratory was the first on campus to get a thermocycler for running PCR.  Before that, I stood for hours in front of 3 water baths switching tubes and setting timers trying to amplify DNA.   I remember using a lot of graph paper and colored pencils to plot out tumorigenesis experimental results.  Transparencies were used to present data at lab meetings—getting a color printer was a big deal for the lab.  If you wanted copies of research papers, you would have to travel across campus to the library basements and do some serious Xeroxing.  If you had a memo or paperwork that needed to get to someone fast, you hand delivered it, which happened more than you might think.  Protocols were developed from research papers with lots of trial and error, and reagents were made using chemicals, not just opening a manual and using the tubes/reagents enclosed.  I think the most noticeable change from the early years was that there was more interaction among lab members since we weren’t sitting in front of a computer or phone, and that interaction is what I missed the most over the years.

Were there particular events that stick out in your mind?

On 9/11, I was with co-workers in the lab with the radio on when the first airplane hit the World Trade Center. We went down to the stock room at the McArdle building to watch the news with Paul on the little TV he had, and we saw the second airplane hit. None of us knew what to do, nothing seemed real. We were all in shock and very worried about what was going to happen next; it seemed like we were in a movie. I had two young children at school, and I was torn about getting to them or staying at work…which was the safest thing to do? Then Michael walked into the lab, he had been at the airport in Madison. He told us his flight was canceled, and he went into his office and started working. I remember how much his presence calmed me during a very troubling situation.

What will you miss most about work?

I miss the daily challenges that were associated with running a large lab with many animals and up to 20 members. Organizing and multi-tasking were always my greatest strengths, and I definitely needed them over the years.  I always told my friends and family that I loved my job.  Michael allowed me a great deal of independence over the years.  I cannot thank him enough for the opportunities he provided me.

Jill with husband, Tracy, and granddaugher Ari.
Jill with husband, Tracy, and granddaugher Ari.

What do you most look forward to in retirement?  Any special hobbies or interests?

Reading murder mysteries is keeping me occupied the most these days.  I am very much enjoying being a grandma and have been traveling to visit my adorable granddaughter Ari, who lives near La Crosse.  I have been coaching high school and youth volleyball for 15 years and hope to be able to do that again in the near future.

What advice would you give to a person starting out?

Take very detailed notes when someone is training you or you are learning a new technique/procedure.  Write up the protocol as a checklist to ensure that you are consistent in every step.  Use those notes to remind you about what you need to do if there is some time in between the training and when you need to perform the task on your own.  Your research data needs to reproducible and robust!!

Any message you would give to your co-workers?

In October 2018, I was diagnosed with cancer.  I cannot thank enough those individuals who left cards/gifts, asked how I was doing, sent an email, gave a Hi and smile in the hallways while I was going through chemotherapy and after the stem cell transplant.  A huge thank you to Jim, Kirsten and Aaron along with Rich, Dawn, Shane and Elise for all their assistance to keep the lab running for me during my absences. Hugs to Debbie for her support and checking on me daily during chemo to make sure I was doing ok.  Her friendship made coming to work something to look forward to instead of something I needed to get through.  To Randy, Patty, Mary Jo, Kristen, Chris and Karen (and those I haven’t mentioned), thank you all for your support over the past years and your patience when I was a little demanding…ok, I will admit, often a lot demanding.  In 2017-2018, we submitted 13 grants with budgets from $25K to $4M and collaborators from all over.  I definitely could not have done any of that and everything else over the years without all of you.

For those looking to make an impact on cancer, the greatest contribution you can make in your research is to develop or identify non-toxic, targeted chemoprevention and therapeutic treatments for cancer patients.  I, like many others, have first-hand experience of the side effects of drugs used in cancer treatment.  I had no physical symptoms when I was diagnosed with stage III multiple myeloma.  Within 4 days, I was taking up to 50 pills a day along with injections, IVs, transfusions, and I quickly felt like a cancer patient due to all the side effects of the treatment. Please, please work hard every day to help find a cure.  Less toxic, more effective drugs will help improve the quality of life for those suffering through cancer treatment and their families.