Jo Handelsman, a plant pathologist who studies the way bacteria communicate, starts every meeting with undergraduates the same way. "Everyone come up with a dumb question," she instructs. "They soon learn that there are no dumb questions."
Just as Handelsman creates an environment where undergraduates feel safe asking "dumb questions," the new HHMI Professor plans to build an intensely interactive and supportive undergraduate research group to conduct research in her lab throughout their college years. She's looking especially for minorities and women, and she wants science education majors as well as those majoring in biology. "We will invite them into the community of science by including them in the conversation of the laboratory, which can be very intimidating to an undergraduate," she explains. She hopes that engaging in research and sharing the thrill of discovery about micro-organisms with each other and the rest of the research group will draw them to careers in scientific research.
A professor of plant pathology and co-director of the university's Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, Handelsman won the first Recognition Award from Cabinet 99, a Wisconsin Alumni Association initiative, for her professional achievement and commitment to furthering the status of women at the university. Recognizing that she may be seen as a role model for women in science, Handelsman says, "Role models are just to let people know that their dreams are possible. One of my goals is to let girls and young women know that they don't have to give up being human or female and having fun to be scientists." She hopes to emulate the influence that bacterial geneticist Martha Howe had on her during her own student days. "She was the kind of woman scientist I aspired to be: brilliant, meticulous and feminine, with a generosity of spirit and a gentle warmth that made her an incredible mentor. She always had time for her students and colleagues."
As an HHMI Professor, Handelsman also will reach out to the world through The Spud Files, an interactive website she plans to build around the story of the Irish potato famine. Its goal is to present biology in sufficient depth to be useful in college courses, yet comprehensible and interesting to the public. The materials on the website will be freely available for any teacher to use.
To Handelsman, teaching and research cannot be separated, so she plans to establish an HHMI Teaching Fellows Program to help graduate students and postdoctoral fellows improve their teaching skills. She called the HHMI Professors program "one of the first to acknowledge that research and teaching aren't at odds. They enhance and enrich each other. I hope to help researchers become fantastic teachers and see how that enhances their research."
Jo Handelsman is betting that it will.