Distinguished Professor of Genetics Susan Wessler holds the Neil A. and Rochelle A. Campbell Presidential Chair for Innovations in Science Education. She talks to UCR Magazine about how she’s managed to do pioneering plant research, energize students to pursue science and still enjoy her family life.
How do you begin to describe Susan Wessler? The charismatic plant geneticist’s research is groundbreaking, sure. Over the past three decades, she’s worked to understand the contribution of transposable elements (TEs) to gene and genome evolution and she’s currently the elected home secretary of the National Academy of Science. But Wessler has not only furthered the study of TEs — she’s also created an innovative teaching lab at UCR. In 2011, she began The Dynamic Genome, a course that teaches freshmen to participate in cutting-edge research from her lab. It was the first course offered in the Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory, and it dramatically increased students’ interest in scientific research.
Q & A
How did you get started with science?
A: I don’t have one of those apocryphal stories of chemistry sets or anything like that. I grew up in basically a tenement in the Bronx and neither of my parents went to college. I wanted to be a medical doctor because my parents wanted me to be a doctor, and by the time I got to college I just started to really enjoy science. I also realized that being a medical doctor isn’t really doing science. The thought of going back to school for medical school was a big turn-off for me, but going for a Ph.D. was more like going for an apprenticeship, and I really liked that.
I got into plant science totally by accident, because the professor whose lab I interviewed with had, unbeknownst to me, recently changed her research focus from frogs to corn. It was one of the first labs really doing that type of research in
plant genetics and transposable elements.
I tell students this story a lot. Many of them are so serious — they’ve got their lives all planned out, and I’m like, “What?” S*** happens. It’s all about opportunities that come along and you have to take advantage of some of these. You can’t just say, “I know what I’m going to do for the next 20 years.”
What inspired you to start the Dynamic Genome Lab?
A: That goes back to when I was at the University of Georgia. I worked there for 28 years and built a very successful research lab that focused on plant genetics and transposable elements.
My department at the University of Georgia really valued teaching, but there were no metrics for teaching other than student evaluations, which can be BS. As a female, you get things like, “She’s hot.” That’s nonsense!
I wanted to introduce students to a fun way to experience science. I mean, science is doing science. It’s akin to baseball. If you want to know about baseball, you can’t listen to somebody saying, “There’s nine people on the team and there’s a pitcher
and a catcher… .” Spend an afternoon playing the game, then you’ll understand it. And science is exactly like that. Scientists love figuring out the unknown. That’s what makes it exciting to be a scientist.
So this teaching program exists so that a student’s introduction to science is not facts; it’s the experience of doing science, of doing real experiments. We want to interest students in science so they will persist in their major, and, also, so we can tell them about all the career opportunities that exist in science — not just medical school. As freshmen we can really influence their career path.
Is that what you’re hoping to do with your endowment from the Neil A. and Rochelle A. Campbell chair?
A: Yes. What’s really unique about this chair is the proceeds will go to science education, not research. That’s incredibly unusual. We have all realized that we could be doing much better in science education, but in order to figure out what to do, we have got to do a lot of experiments. So the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are all financing grant programs that will foster this kind of creativity in the classroom.
You moved to UCR from Georgia partly because your best friend Natasha Raikhel (distinguished professor of plant cell biology and director of UCR’s Institute for Integrative Genome Biology) was already here. What did you know about Riverside’s mission before you came out here?
A: I knew about the strength in plant biology but I didn’t realize it would be such a wonderful place for my teaching program to expand because of the large population of underrepresented and first-generation students.
Like I said, I came from a family where there was no knowledge of science. I see myself as being a lot like the students here at UC Riverside, whose parents didn’t go to college, didn’t have a lot of money and go to a public university.
What I found here at UCR is not just that the students are great, but that you can make a major impact and change their lives. It was a real surprise to me, but UCR is the perfect place for both my research program and my teaching program.
UCR has three women in the National Academy of Sciences — you, Xuemei Chen and Natasha Raikhel. You’ve said that’s really unusual. Is that the legacy you want to leave, being a role model for women in science?
A: Sure. Part of the reason I agreed to run for election as home secretary was because there wasn’t enough diversity in the NAS membership. So we adopted a couple of mechanisms to specifically diversify the membership. As it turns out, female undergraduates are heavily represented in science classes around the country now, but if you look at the upper levels in many places — not in plant biology at UCR — women are still underrepresented, especially in the physical sciences, including engineering, chemistry, physics and computer science.
Would you rather be known for your research or for your impact in education?
A: Well, I’m already known for my research. But you go out into the street and nobody knows who I am. They don’t know the National Academy of Sciences. Most people don’t know, they don’t care. The way universities are set up in this country, the people with the most significant voice in an argument are your researchers. And so, as a researcher, I have the respect of my colleagues. And I have the respect of the upper administration, so I can go and say that we need to advance the education agenda.
When people ask how you do it all, what do you say?
A: In Georgia, a graduate student came up to me and said, “I know you’re known for science and all that, but what I really love about you is that you have a family and you’re happy. How do you do that?” There’s a lot of women in science now as undergraduate majors, as graduate students going for their Ph.D., but we have what we call a leaky pipeline. Women are not going into science professions at the same frequency as men are, and a major reason is that the responsibility of having a family still falls more heavily on them.
So to even that out, there are decisions that you can make in your life, which I made. One of them is who you marry. You’ve got to find somebody who will take your career as seriously as they take their own. I found somebody like that.
The other thing is where you work. If you want to work in Boston or Seattle or Washington D.C., it’s going to be expensive, and you’re going to have to commute and that’s going to be a time you will not be able to spend at home. So what I did was work in Athens, Georgia. The University of Georgia had and still has a very strong plant group, so I knew I wouldn’t be sacrificing my career. Obviously, it didn’t, because I was selected to the National Academy of Sciences when I was 44 years old. It didn’t hurt me at all research-wise, and it was inexpensive to live there and I didn’t have to commute — I lived like four miles from the lab and it took me 10 minutes to get to work.
So you didn’t have to choose one over the other.
A: I wanted it all. I wanted an interesting, well-paying career and I wanted a family life. But to do that, I had to make some compromises, and it turns out that they weren’t compromises after all. Because I don’t work well in high-pressure situations like at Harvard or Stanford. I don’t think I would’ve flourished. I like being confident. I like feeling that I can handle anything. I like being appreciated, and I’m glad that I’m here at UCR.
And really, women need to know that they can have an impact. They need to know what they want and they need to know how to set things up so what they want happens.
In fact, being a mom — and I’ve heard this from many people — made me much better at running my lab. You don’t have time to BS. You have to be organized.