2019 Priestly Award Winner Presents Research on Microbial Communities

Jacob DeCarli '22, Managing Editor

Former science advisor to the Obama administration, Jo Handlesman, received the 2019 Joseph Priestley Award on Wednesday, Sept. 18 for her “pioneering research in the structure and function of microbial communities,” according to the Clarke Forum website.

Provost Neil Weissman made opening remarks to an audience of over 100 people in ATS. Weissman and Associate Professor of Biology Michael Roberts presented Handlesman with the award.

As part of the Priestly Award Celebration, Handlesman presented a lecture about microbial communities and her research she has conducted over the years on how to preserve microbiomes.

Handlesman first described the stigmas around microorganisms throughout the history of microbiology. Handlesman provided examples of how microorganisms are most recognized in times of disease outbreaks and used the Irish Potato famine as her main source because it “gave microbes a bad name,” and that “[the Irish Potato famine] fostered an interest in microorganisms,” she said.

The first part of the lecture focused on high diversity of microorganisms and how they are misunderstood. “This is one of the most exciting times in the history of science,” Handlesman said as she explained the increasing discovery of new microorganisms and their functions. Handlesman also highlighted microorganisms’ roles in carbon fixation to help balance our atmospheric carbon levels.

Another part of the lecture focused on soil degradation and the harmful effects it could potentially impose on different ecosystems. Handlesman discussed the U.S.’s history of agricultural practices and said, “we actively abuse it [the soil],” as she referenced heavy plowing of fields and disruption of natural soil due to human projects.

Handlesman’s research focused on practices to improve soil health, specifically in the Mid-Western region of the U.S. Certain practices include “interdisciplinary research and education” and “sustainable agricultural practices,” she said. Additionally, Handlesman and her team are working towards projects to understand microbial communities—including experiments with microorganisms under the acronym “THOR” (The Hitchhikers of the Rhizosphere). Handlesman explained that these THOR organisms can help “suppress plant disease” rather than use chemical agents that could potentially cause further harm.

The lecture was well received by students. Sadie Fowler ’22, said she thought it was fascinating that “some of the issues of carbon synchs come just from soil.” Fowler also reflected Handlesman’s criticisms of how the U.S. has treated its soil in the last 100 years. “The U.S. is a large proponent of unhealthy soil practices,” she said and concluded from the presentation. Simona Bajgai ’20, a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major, said that Handlesman structured her presentation for audience members in the audience within science fields and those who may not have known much about her topic. “She’s a molecular biologist so I thought the talk was going to be all about science,” Bajgai said, “but the way she talked about soil and policy and the environment was really interesting.”

Chase Weizer ’22 added “her dedications to her research should be revered and her contributions to her field are numerous.” He explained and said that he is “excited” to follow Handlesman’s future projects.

Students also reflected on Handlesman being in the minority of women who have won the Priestly Award. Jordyn Dean ’22 said she was intrigued by how Handlesman represented women in her lecture. “It was just really cool to have a female presenter and a female perspective in science,” Dean said. Fowler also reflected on Handlesman’s role in a male-dominated field. “It is really inspiring that there’s a woman like Handlesman and her team who are making groundbreaking discoveries and were trusted advisors to President Obama,” she said.

According to the Clarke Forum website, the Joseph Priestly award is given to a “distinguished scientist whose work has contributed to the welfare of humanity.” Handlesman is the 67 recipient of this award. “Joseph [Priestly] is one of my great heroes of science,” Handlesman said as she received the award. Handlesman has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and currently serves as the director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discover at the University of Wisconson, according to the Clarke Forum website.