Current Research

Jo Handelsman wants faculty to approach teaching with the same rigor, spirit of experimentation, and creativity that they bring to their research by incorporating problem-solving and other active learning techniques and assessing their success.

We want to change the way biology is taught, particularly at research universities. Our strategy is to provide current and future faculty with tested tools that will help them be outstanding teachers. The program derives its cohesion from the concept of “scientific teaching.” This means approaching teaching with the same rigor, spirit of experimentation, and creativity that scientists bring to research. The core practices of scientific teaching are using active-learning techniques (e.g., problem-solving, group discussion, interactive projects), revising teaching strategies based on assessment, and enhancing classroom dynamics by using a diversity of teaching techniques to reach a broad group of learners.

With our first two HHMI Professor grants in 2002 and 2006, we aimed to spread scientific teaching through two programs: the HHMI Teaching Fellows Program for University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students and postdocs, and the National Academies Summer Institute for Undergraduate Education in Biology for faculty nationwide. Both programs promote skills in classroom teaching and include a seminar on good practices for mentoring in the research laboratory. Program assessment indicates that the participants learn the theory and employ the practices of scientific teaching in their own classrooms. In 2010, we expanded these programs. We moved to Yale University and initiated the Center for Scientific Teaching at Yale, which fostered a new Fellows Program for graduate students and postdocs plus a Summer Institute for Yale faculty, and replicated the national Summer Institute to seven sites across the U.S. In the Summer Institutes we have trained more than 1,000 faculty who have become ambassadors for scientific teaching at their own universities, thereby amplifying the impact of the Institutes.

We also developed a research course based on the courses developed by other HHMI Professors (Hatfull and Elgin) that can be replicated internationally. Our course involves hunting for new antibiotics among soil bacteria and using the research activity as the foundation for motivating learning about fundamental biology.  We offer this course to freshmen and have trained 24 instructors at other colleges and universities to run the course. The goal is to create and share materials that will enable any instructor to teach the course. We have developed a lab manual for students and a teachers' guide. We are also planning to launch a website that all students who are engaged in the research course can use to post data, initiate discussion, or answer others' questions. As such, we envision the course as the basis for a worldwide network of student researchers, all hunting for antibiotics. 

We are dedicated to providing the community of scientific teachers with materials they need to teach science and teach others how to teach science. We created the Scientific Teaching Toolbox, a Web site that contains guidebooks, video clips, Powerpoint presentations, and instructional materials for teaching. When complete, the toolbox will include:

Manual for group facilitators. We will develop a training manual for facilitators who guide groups in the Summer Institute and similar training opportunities. The manual will cover issues of group dynamics, maintaining structure while encouraging creative digression, and enhancing group productivity.

Teachable units. Materials developed by past teaching fellows and Summer Institute participants will be made available on the website. Instructions for implementation will make the materials useful with or without the training.

Controversies course materials. We will develop a new set of classroom materials based on the Controversies in Science and Technology book series. The materials will be developed and tested at Yale and Wisconsin, revised based on reviews from students and instructors, and added to the toolbox.

The result will be a robust set of materials that will enable many instructors to share the principles and practices of scientific teaching. By enlarging the group of educators who train others in scientific teaching, we will amplify the impact of this grant.

Research in the Handelsman Lab

My lab studies the communication networks within microbial communities and between microbial communities and their host organisms. The soil community, historically the richest source of antibiotics used in human medicine, is of particular interest because of its chemical diversity. But the vast majority (greater than 99 percent) of soil bacteria are resistant to culturing, and their antibiotics remain inaccessible by traditional means.

Believing that the uncultured bacteria of the soil contain a treasure trove of medicinal chemistry, my lab applies an approach we call functional metagenomics, which provides access to the chemistry of uncultured bacteria. Metagenomics is the analysis of the collective genomes of uncultured organisms, accomplished by extracting DNA directly from the soil and cloning it into a culturable organism. Analysis of metagenomic libraries has led to the discovery of new genes, proteins, and small molecules, including new antibiotics and signal molecules. Of particular interest is antibiotic resistance in agricultural systems and unmanaged ecosystems.  We have discovered novel antibiotic resistance genes in soil and animal manure, and we have used metagenomics as a means to track the movement of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment.

In addition, we study the structure and function of the microbial community that resides in insect guts. The simple communities found in caterpillars and fruit flies provide excellent models for more complex gut microbiota because the insect gut can be readily manipulated. We have shown that members of the caterpillar gut microbiota can undergo a dramatic shift from commensal organisms to deadly pathogens, and we are exploring conditions that favor or prevent this event. We are also exploring what makes a community robust or resistant to invasion and what makes an invader able to breach the community barrier. Study of the fruit fly gut microbiome has revealed a new mechanism by which animals maintain their microbial communities. The fly appears to replenish the microbial communities by consuming the bacteria every day. This work has broad implications for manipulation of the human microbiome, whose composition has been linked with diverse health and disease conditions.

As of May 2014

Find a Scientist