It may be hard to find an earthier executive office on the UW-Madison campus than Jo Handelsman’s third-floor quarters in the Discovery Building, home to the public Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and the private Morgridge Institute for Research.
Handelsman has been director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery since February 2017, returning to UW-Madison after serving as a Yale University professor and as director of the science division in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“After the White House, it’s almost easy to do anything,” Handelsman said.
With jars of dirt and friendly looking, stuffed-animal versions of caterpillars and microbes dominating the decor of her corner office overlooking Union South, Handelsman oversees strategy for the scientific advances the Discovery Building was designed to sprout.
Handelsman was drawn to science before it was cool. After earning a doctorate in molecular biology from UW-Madison in 1984, she was a professor of plant pathology at the university for 22 years and spent two years as professor and chair of the Department of Bacteriology. She went to Yale in 2010, and took the Washington, D.C., job in 2014.
Along the way, she co-founded the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute at UW-Madison and started the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching. More recently, she began Small World Initiative, a science program that engages students around the world.
Her many honors include the Presidential Award for Science Mentoring and being named one of the “Ten People Who Mattered This Year” by Nature magazine, both in 2012. Handelsman is one of 12 “trailblazing” women honored this month by CBS and the Association of National Advertisers for their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) contributions.
A native of New York City, Handelsman, 59, is married to Casey Nagy, an attorney, anthropologist and novelist who now serves as a consultant for UW administration. She has two stepchildren.
What sparked your interest in science?
I was curious about how things work, particularly biology. In seventh grade, I looked through a microscope and watched a paramecium feed itself. I just completely fell in love and never wanted to take my eyes off the microscope. When I was 13, I found a 1939 microscope from a German hospital in a scientific equipment warehouse. I babysat for six months to raise the $72 to buy it.
What was it like to work for the White House for three years?
The pressure in the White House was like nothing I’d ever experienced. People worked incredibly hard, and were on call all the time. I had a staff of 10 to 15 people, most of them on loan from federal agencies and universities. It was a most amazing staff, so talented and passionate. We ran the presidential medals of science program and provided oversight for large instruments such as the super-collider in Lucerne, Switzerland, and the Green Bank telescope in West Virginia.
Mainly, we educated the president on topics of interest and my group headed the launch of new science-related initiatives on precision medicine, soil health, microbiomes, forensic science and the image of women and STEM careers in the media.
We were in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, built after the Civil War for the State, Navy and War departments. It is a gorgeous, gracious building with slate floors and mosaics with embedded fossils and magnificent balustrades. I had free roam of the White House.
It was a privilege to work for a president who loved what I do.
What is the Small World Initiative?
It is a worldwide project to crowdsource antibiotic discoveries. Each year, 10,000 high school and college students in 14 countries collect soil samples and examine them for microbes that produce antibiotics that could be useful for treating infectious disease. I started the program at Yale and now I’m really excited to have the UW-Madison as the leader.
What are you hoping to accomplish with the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery?
I was on the planning committee for this; ground was not yet broken when I left. Now, I can see the vision of interdisciplinary research has been realized way beyond anything I imagined. It is the pinnacle of architecture driving function. It really works! Multiple groups share labs and get a taste of other kinds of research. They gather over coffee and exchange ideas. That can be transformative — to have biologists suddenly talking to machine-learning experts.
The next steps are to evaluate how this has worked and to further break down barriers through new kinds of interactions among scientists.
We also are trying to reach out to the broader community to collaborate. We see ourselves as a hub for science and we are extending an open invitation to people in a variety of industries to crowdsource with us. Like the farmer who brought in blood from cows that had eaten moldy hay — that led to the discovery of Warfarin (a blood thinner) years ago — this is really living the Wisconsin Idea.
— Interview by Judy Newman