Jo Handelsman had numerous options when she changed jobs this past January. Part of that was because of the position she was leaving: advising former President Barack Obama on science. Not many jobs take you into the Oval Office.
“An incomparable experience, particularly under that president,” Handelsman says. “President Obama was such an incredible advocate for science.”
Handelsman’s White House service bolstered a resume that didn’t need it. She’s a decorated plant pathologist known for her passionate advocacy for women in science.
Handelsman always assumed she would return to her previous position at Yale University, even while other offers came in. However, none of them really appealed to her. But last year, while visiting family in Madison, Handelsman heard about an opening at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The job would be directing the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, an institute and a facility she helped plan nearly a decade earlier as a faculty member at UW–Madison.
Handelsman left Madison for Yale in 2010. Returning as director of WID brings her full circle. She rejoins her microbiology colleagues on campus and will continue her research—making a statement at a time when other faculty stars have left, leery of the political climate in state government.
“I asked myself, ‘Why Wisconsin?’” Handelsman says. “Why did I want to come back? It was clear then, and it is clear now, that there’s a unique intellectual vibrancy on this campus. People … are curious and eager to do good work. It’s a very warm community of scientists.”
Handelsman started on Feb. 1 and by March was developing a new outreach-driven strategic plan for the interdisciplinary research institute, which shares the Discovery Building with the private Morgridge Institute for Research.
Clearly, Handelsman is excited about the challenge, and about the lab—across the hall from her office in the Discovery Building—where she will continue to decipher the relationship of plants and bacteria to the soil, her current research interest.
Handelsman can overwhelm a novice when she gets going on bacteria and plants.
“I love prokaryotic organisms, and their combination of simplicity and complexity is just fascinating to me,” she says. And if the details can send one scrambling for a science dictionary, the passion is palpable as Handelsman talks about her lab discovering a bacterium in the Wisconsin soil that can suppress the organisms—oomycetes—that caused the Irish potato famine.
Such zeal is contagious and has served Handelsman well in her career-long effort to encourage the participation of women and girls in science. It dates to her early days on the Madison campus, when Handelsman co-founded the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute, and stretched to the White House science office, where she worked on a project called “The Image of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)” that included persuading movie and TV writers to create female characters working in scientific fields.
In 2012, Nature magazine included Handelsman on its list of “Ten people who mattered this year,” in part for an experiment that showed a bias against hiring women for a lab position when qualifications were equal. Equal? They were identical. Handelsman sent one resume to more than 100 scientists, but some rated an applicant named “John” while others, men and women, rated “Jennifer.” John’s salary offers averaged about $4,000 higher and he was generally judged more competent.
Handelsman surprised herself by falling in love with science when she was 12 years old. Growing up in New York City, she figured seventh-grade science class would be all about circuits, and she wasn’t really interested. Then she looked through a microscope and it changed her life.
“I just loved my first science class,” she says. “I saw a paramecium under the microscope. I was enthralled. I’ve been enthralled with microscopes ever since.”
That fascination led her first to Cornell University, and then to UW–Madison, where she received her doctorate in molecular biology in 1984. She joined the faculty in plant pathology the following year and stayed until 2009. That’s when she and her husband, Casey Nagy, a novelist who’d been chief of staff to then-UW Chancellor John Wiley, headed east to Yale.
In 2013, the call came from Obama science adviser John Holdren. Would Handelsman like to be associate director for science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy?
She said no. “I loved running a lab and being a university professor.”
Casey urged her to reconsider, and she did.
“A fantastic decision,” Handelsman says now. After getting over her awe of the Oval Office—“the first time, I thought I would keel over”—she was impressed and gratified by Obama’s respect for and interest in science.
She seems equally pleased with the decision to return to Madison earlier this year.
“To come back to Madison in a leadership position that also allows me to do my science,” Handelsman says, “it’s like I’m getting the best of all worlds.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.
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