Handelsman talks scientific education

Jo Handelsman, a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, studies effective methods ofteaching science.
Jo Handelsman, a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, studies effective methods ofteaching science. Photo by Kirsten Schnackenberg.

Jo Handelsman, a professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, is nationally acclaimed for her efforts to improve science education and to attract and retain more women and minorities in scientific fields. At Yale, she teaches a freshman and sophomore biology class, “From Microbes to Molecules,” and heads a lab focused on microbe research. She spoke to the News about how scientific teaching can be improved as well as the barriers that women and minorities in science face.

Q Explain the theory of “scientific teaching” you’ve worked to develop.

AThe aim of scientific teaching is to reach a diversity of students. Classical scientific teaching reaches only those students who think like the professor. Scientific teaching broadens the cognitive approach, so that more creativity is brought to bear on the way science is presented and communicated. Cognitive research shows us that learning is a deeply individual process, and each person has a unique and idiosyncratic way of developing and constructing our own knowledge. Scientific teaching addresses these unique ways of learning with a general class of activities known as active learning. Active learning can be done in large and small classes, and with a combination of lecture and lab as well.

Q How does lab work play a role in “experiential teaching”?

A A research lab naturally adheres to the tenets of scientific teaching. By definition, lab work is active. This is the type of work that generates the most creativity and beneficial cooperation among scientists. Scientific teaching is derived from lab research. We may not talk about lab work as experiential teaching, but that really is where it comes from. In the freshman class “Microbes to Molecules” I teach, the lab takes center stage. The lecture is really in service to the lab. We first do research, and then return to lecture and study when we need to figure something out, or clarify a point.

Q Do you think Yale’s efforts to attract more students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are working? How could Yale improve its efforts?

A They’re definitely working, as the numbers show. We have more students in the freshmen class than every before interested in STEM-related fields. I think this is partly because of the increased visibility of the sciences to undergraduates. Yale is excellent as providing research opportunities for undergraduates. I think there are two ways we can improve these efforts even more. First, Yale can work to provide these research opportunities to undergraduates even earlier in their Yale careers. Ideally, students would engage in research in their first and second years. Second, Yale should increase the use of innovative teaching methods in large, introductory courses. I do think Yale has taken this second initiative seriously. Professors here want students to not only survive these courses, but also enjoy and engage in them successfully.

Q How has the position of women in science changed since you were an undergraduate?

A The change is radical, partly because of the presence of women in sciences. There are simply more women at every level of the field. It is surprising, however, how little has changed at the faculty level. There is nowhere near the proportion of women among faculty, which continues to be a great challenge. This slow rate of change among the faculty has been extremely surprising to me.

Q How would you characterize the position of women and minorities in science at Yale in particular?

A Yale has tremendous strength in these areas in the graduate student body. Where I think we fall down is at the faculty level. Hopefully we can incorporate more women and minorities into the faculty in the near future. Certain departments have done a great job, including my own department, MCDB. When I first came to Yale [in 2010] the number of women and minorities in my own department pleasantly surprised me.

Q What do you think is the greatest challenge women and minorities face if they want to go into science?

A I think the biggest challenge is unconscious biases. People have a set of unconscious biases that we don’t intend to use, but still end up employing when making important decisions. I say unconscious because it’s been proven that conscious prejudice, sexism and racism have indeed decreased in the United States in the last 30 years, but implicit forms of these attitudes have not changed. It is difficult to convince scientists of this body of research, as many scientists believe they do indeed make choices based on objective criteria. Experiments and research, however, prove this is not true.

Q What are the origins of your own interest in science?

A When I was about 12, I got a microscope and couldn’t take my eyes away from it. I would look at everything I could get my hands on, from the crystals of household chemicals to pond water. It was definitely the microscopic world that first attracted me to science.

Q Who was your biggest mentor, and how has he or she affected your path in science?

A Howard Temin, whom I knew as both a student and professor at the University of Wisconsin, has been my biggest mentor. He won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in genetics, and set a standard of scientific excellence and integrity at the University. He believed strongly that science must be practiced to do good in the world and combat infectious diseases.

Q What prompted you to come to Yale to teach?

A The scientific community first and foremost attracted me. It is a vibrant, exciting and curious community of scholars. I also loved that professors outside my department were interested in my work. I’ve had very meaningful and stimulating conversations with professors in the History of Art Department, for example. The biggest joy at Yale, however, really is teaching the undergraduate students. There are many, many smart undergraduates interested in science, but the ones at Yale really are very special. They have the most spirit and engagement with the world I’ve ever seen.

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