Jo Handelsman describes herself as a "changemaker." Judging from her dossier, the incoming director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery is not wrong.
Handelsman, currently the associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, previously served as a plant pathology scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the 1990s, she concocted a new science called metagenomics — the study of genetic materials retrieved from the environment.
"When I first wrote grants, people wrote grant reviews saying 'If this is a good idea, someone already would have done it,'" she said.
Today, metagenomics is a dynamic area of scientific study, shaping things from agriculture to public health.
In the early 2000s, Handelsman engineered the field of "scientific teaching" — an activity-oriented approach to instruction that emphasizes inquiry and discovery. When she first began to push the methodology, she said colleagues treated her as a "maverick." Now, the technique has become nationally recognized as a best practice for instructors in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
All the while, Handelsman has been an active force at the intersection of gender and the sciences. While at the UW-Madison, she was a co-founder of the Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute, a research agency that scrutinizes gender equity in the STEM fields. Years later, she received national recognition for a study showing that STEM researchers tended to offer female job applicants lower salaries, and rated them less competent than male counterparts.
Handelsman says she thinks that her changemaking ways are just what's needed at WID — the six-year-old public organization dedicated to interdisciplinary scholarship and entrepreneurship at the UW.
"When I interviewed, I was so struck by the hunger for leadership that will launch things in a new direction, with new tools, with unexpected outcomes — which, of course, is the best part of science," said Handelsman.
That hunger was something she was glad to see. She said that she had been hesitant to take the WID position because of concerns over an alleged culture of risk-aversion and anti-innovation at the UW-Madison. Her predecessor, the geneticist and computer scientist David Krakauer, left WID in 2015 after expressing frustration over the university's bureaucracy.
“(UW administrators) like to use the word ‘innovation’ a lot, but they don’t want to act on it,” he told The Isthmus in an interview prior to his departure. “I think this is a culture that is really intolerant of taking risks.”
Handelsman said that for what it's worth, over the two decades she spent at the UW, she found plenty of support for the risks she took.
"I didn't find what David Krakauer is describing," she said. "It's kind of antithetical to my experience at the UW."
When Handelsman takes over the job on Feb. 1, 2017, she said that she plans to continue championing diversity in the sciences.
"That space between the human side of science, and the more science form of science, is something I'll always be thinking about," she said.
Handelsman said that it's a matter of national importance: As university student bodies become less white- and male-dominated, she said that there needs to be a focus on fostering talent across identities.
"We need to take advantage of all talents in science and technology to be the best in the world," she said.
Handelsman also said she plans to redouble efforts on snagging research dollars — she said she refuses to "let any outstanding institution to be stymied by the fear of funding" — and on improving the "human condition" in the state, in the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea.
Handelsman will take over leadership of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery from Christopher Bradfield, who has served as an interim director since Krakauer's departure.