Jo Handelsman was in a faculty hiring meeting earlier in her career when the group suddenly came to an unusual consensus: They needed a potato virologist.
A search for an expert on potato diseases had been underway at the university for six months, but no one had previously mentioned the need for that particular type of specialist, she said.
“All of a sudden, at the last minute, it had to be a virologist, and not a bacteriologist or mycologist or something else,” Handelsman said.
It so happened that the virologist they wanted to hire was male.
The new virologist specification, in Handelsman’s view, was an after-the-fact rationalization caused by inherent gender biases.
“This is a very inadvertent, and almost innocent, kind of prejudice — and yet it’s insidious because it has the same impact as very conscious and deliberate prejudice,” she said.
Handelsman became a Yale professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology earlier this month after transferring from the University of Wisconsin. A long-time advocate for women in the sciences, she said she is particularly concerned with faculty hiring and development. This fall, Wisconsin honored her with the “Champion’s Award” of the Women’s Philanthropy Council for her work supporting women in academics. A half dozen of Handelsman’s new Yale coworkers interviewed said they are looking forward to the strides in research, teaching and gender equality that she will make here.
Frances Rosenbluth, deputy provost for faculty development, said she is enthusiastic about Handelsman’s hiring and what it means for the sciences at Yale.
“I’m excited to meet her, and thrilled she’s here, because her interest in mentoring women in the sciences addresses a big need here — or for that matter, on any campus,” Rosenbluth said in an e-mail.
Handelsman is also at the top of her field, six Yale professors interviewed said. In 2002, she was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor, a prestigious honor given for the first time to eight recipients in 2002, earning $2.5 million in grant money for the development of teaching programs. (The grant was awarded again to 20 recipients in 2006.) With a fresh perspective and trained eye for examining the treatment of women and minorities in academics, Handelsman has already begun looking critically at Yale, even though she only got here three weeks ago.
“My sense is that Yale has not been [sufficiently] ‘activist’ on the issues of women in science,” she said. “There’s an expectation that things will change just because we simply want to do the right thing.”
Handelsman is expected to shake things up, and administrators and fellow faculty said they want her to do just that.
In the 2008-’09 academic year, the most recent period for which data is available, Yale had 146 tenured male professors in the sciences, compared to 16 women. Of non-tenured faculty, 64 were men and 24 were women.
Meg Urry, chair of the Physics Department and former co-chair of the Women’s Faculty Forum, said Yale could stand to hire more female faculty in the sciences, noting that inherent prejudices often hamper women’s chances of getting hired.
“In general, we are not yet up to the task of hiring and promoting women as easily as men — we definitely need to work on doing better,” she said
‘MARGINALIZED AND OVERLOOKED’
Steven Girvin, deputy provost for science and technology, said female scientists often face unconscious, implicit biases from even the most enlightened of their colleagues. Urry cited personal experience as evidence that prejudice against women and minorities can have very real effects.
“From time to time I have been underestimated, patronized, marginalized and overlooked,” she said. “Such unequal treatment is usually pretty subtle, so it’s difficult to identify.”
Urry said she sees Handelsman as a driving force for women’s issues in the sciences. Handelsman served on a committee within the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, which issued a report called “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” in November 2006.
Handelsman said her concern for creating a fair work environment stems from her own experiences as a female science professor and researcher. Still, she stresses that fairness is not merely an end in itself, but a means for choosing candidates with the best skills.
“We want to get the best people,” she said. “We want to be judging people based on real quality, and not on characteristics that have nothing to do with how well they do their jobs.”
Perhaps the best way to overcome these biases is simply to talk about them and raise awareness, she said. Specifically, Handelsman cautioned against departments who conduct broad searches for faculty rather than defining a particular job description ahead of time, since, she said, this strategy is very prone to after-the-fact rationalizations.
Handelsman said she would eventually like to work with the Yale School of Drama or undergraduate theater organization such as the Dramat to put on skits or plays that change people’s ingrained attitudes about race and gender.
“We need to change universities so they are more conducive to women’s careers in science,” she said. “We don’t need to change women — women are great. That’s not the problem.”
Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Joan Steitz said she had heard of Handelsman’s similar cooperation with theater groups at Wisconsin, noting that while she has never seen the skits herself, she has heard positive reactions from colleagues across the country.
While at Wisconsin, Handelsman was a strong advocate for her female colleagues, ensuring that they were nominated for positions on important academic committees, said Katrina Forest, a professor of bacteriology at Wisconsin who knew Handelsman for two years.
TEACHING AND RESEARCH
Handelsman is also a valuable asset for Yale because of her research and teaching skills, Steitz said. Handelsman is at the forefront of her field, Steitz said, emphasizing the impressiveness of the Hughes professorship.
“She is being sponsored [by the Hughes Institute] because she’s made significant contributions to teaching, as well as conducting excellent research,” Steitz said.
Handelsman already has ideas for improving science teaching at Yale, saying she hopes to promote discussion and small-group work, even within large lecture classes.
Chemistry professor Alanna Schepartz said Handelsman’s teaching prowess is recognized through her receipt of the Hughes professorship.
“[Handelsman] and I were both Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professors, so I know that she is intensely committed to improving and modernizing teaching in the sciences, as well as the sophistication with which we recruit faculty and students,” Schepartz said.
Handelsman’s arrival at Yale is a story of serendipity.
“I originally got interested in Yale because of the West Campus,” Handelsman said, adding that before this year, Yale was completely off her radar screen. Last March, her sister, a graduate of Yale Medical School, sent her an article from an alumni newsletter discussing the West Campus and its intended focus area in microbial diversity and drug discovery.
“She wrote this little note next to the article saying, ‘Hmm, this sounds like you!’ ” Handelsman said.
Her sister’s intuition turned out to be right on target.
Handelsman said her lab focuses on microbial diversity and community function, and aims to develop new antibiotics derived from the metabolic products of benign bacteria. Furthermore, she said she hopes her research will lead to a better understanding of antibiotic resistance and its potentially fatal effects that can be applied to human medicine.
“More people die every year of antibiotic resistance death than of all of AIDS and tuberculosis cases put together in this country,” she said.
Handelsman said she uses “metagenomic” techniques to explore complex ecosystems of microorganisms located, for instance, in a lump of soil. The term “metagenomic” refers to the method Handelsman uses to extract DNA directly from the microbes in the soil, she explained. The technique, she added, is a method of circumventing the laboratory culturing process, which has proved problematic for researchers.
Handelsman said her interests dovetail with those of the West Campus microbial biology institute. Although she has always taught at public universities and has always been involved in agriculture, Handelsman said she became increasingly interested in the opportunities the West Campus would provide for interdisciplinary and collaborative research — so when Yale extended her an offer, she accepted.
Handelsman plans to teach a course for non-majors on the impact of microbes on human history.