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Jo Handelsman

Yale University

Yale Microbiologist Picked for White House Science Job

Yale University microbiologist Jo Handelsman has spent 2 decades trying to help her colleagues become better teachers, and in 2011 she won a presidential mentoring award. But she wants to come to Washington—as associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)—because she says she has so much to learn.

“I think that John Holdren has been enormously effective in his position,” she says about the OSTP director and science adviser to President Barack Obama, who last week nominated Handelsman for the job. “And I’m hoping he’ll teach me to be effective in this one.”

Handelsman would succeed Carl Wieman, the physics Nobelist who stepped down in June 2012 for health reasons. Although Wieman’s portfolio covers all the basic sciences as well as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, he concentrated on serving as the administration’s point man on education.

A Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor since 2002, Handelsman formed the Center for Scientific Teaching when she moved to Yale in 2010 after 30 years at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she also earned her Ph.D. She says that she is equally interested in science and education and hopes to make an impact in both areas.

“I’ve wanted to change and improve aspects of science for a long time,” says Handelsman, who is now president of the American Society for Microbiology and chairs the National Research Council’s Board on Life Sciences at the U.S. National Academies. “I’ve worked on national agendas quite a lot, and this is an opportunity to work on those agendas at a pretty high level, and with a team of people who are deeply committed to science. … And who could turn down this president? He loves science.”

The 54-year-old Handelsman said that she plans to take a 2-year leave from Yale, where she is a chaired professor in the molecular, cellular, and developmental biology department. “I’m in the middle of my research career and I don’t want to lose that,” she explains. “I think there’s a limit to how long you can have a hiatus.”

Handelsman’s nomination is not expected to generate any waves in the U.S. Senate, which must confirm her appointment, although the schedule is uncertain. She would fill one of two vacancies among the three associate directors: On 24 July, Robert Simon was nominated as associate director for energy and environment, to succeed Shere Abbott, who left in 2011.