Microbiologist Jo Handelsman, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale, was one of 11 individuals selected by President Barack Obama on Friday to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.
The White House grants these awards annually to individuals and organizations in recognition of the crucial role that mentoring plays in the academic and personal development of students studying science or engineering—particularly those who belong to groups that are underrepresented in those fields.
In addition to her renowned research in microbiology, Handelsman is a tireless advocate for increasing participation of women in science and for reforms in science education. An author of several textbooks on science education, Handelsman created a model institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that encourages student participation in science through excellent mentoring. One example is an eight-session seminar that trains graduate students, postdocs, and faculty in in how to mentor diverse students in scientific research. This seminar has now been replicated at almost 200 university and college campuses and Handelsman estimates that some 5000 and 10,000 mentors have been trained.
The same active participation model is followed at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute/National Academies Summer Institute on Undergraduate Education in Biology. Each summer, about 40 university faculty develop instructional materials for an introductory biology course during a five-day workshop and take the mentoring course with them when they return to their campuses.
Undergraduate students who obtain experience conducting research are more likely to be retained in science, and this effect is especially strong for members of underrepresented groups. “It is critical that we make these experiences productive and rewarding for both mentors and their students,” Handelsman said. “If students are happy, they are more likely to enter careers in science.If mentors are happy, they are more likely to take on more student researchers, leading to more opportunities for undergraduates to engage in real science.”
Handelsman is now busy trying to spur creation of similar programs in areas all over the country, and has implemented some of her teaching ideas in the Center for Scientific Teaching, which she formed at Yale in 2010. She is currently teaching an undergraduate biology course with six graduate students and postdoctoral students she trained in the fall semester in her teaching principles.
In announcing this year’s Presidential Mentoring Award winners, Obama said: “These individuals and organizations have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that the United States remains on the cutting edge of science and engineering for years to come. Their devotion to the educational enrichment and personal growth of their students is remarkable, and these awards represent just a small token of our enormous gratitude.”
Candidates for the Presidential Mentoring Awards are nominated by colleagues, administrators, and students in their home institutions. The mentoring can involve students at any grade level from elementary through graduate school. In addition to being honored at the White House, recipients receive awards of $10,000 to advance their mentoring efforts.
Four organizations were also recipients of the award.
“Jo should be particularly proud of this award – and she should know that both students and faculty alike are benefiting from her focus on mentoring, “ said Ronald Breaker, chair of molecular, cellular and developmental biology. “She has created the Center for Scientific Teaching at Yale, has developed new classes on teaching, and has sparked a whole new level of dialogue on how we teach and mentor students.”