Jo Handelsman, Founder
In 2012 while at Yale University, Jo created an undergraduate course entitled “From Microbes to Molecules” with the goals of strengthening STEM education by engaging first-year college students in authentic research, addressing the antibiotic crisis, and sharing her passion for soil microbes. Her vision, crowdsourcing antibiotic discovery, transformed the six-student introductory biology course into an international network of instructors and students across the world collaborating to discover new antibiotics.
Jo is well-known for her research on soil microbial communities. She was one of the pioneers of functional metagenomics, an approach to studying the functional diversity of unculturable bacteria in environmental samples. She is also known internationally for her efforts to improve science education and participation of women and minorities in science.
Jo assumed the role of Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in February 2017, where she was honored recently as a Vilas Research Professor. In her previous role, she served as the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in June of 2014. Prior to joining OSTP, she was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and Frederick Phineas Rose Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at Yale University. She received her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984, and she served on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1985 until moving to Yale in 2010.
Jo’s leadership led to her appointment as the first President of the Rosalind Franklin Society; her appointment as President of the American Society for Microbiology in 2013; her service on the National Academies’ panel that wrote the 2006 report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering;” her role as co-chair of the PCAST working group that developed the 2012 report, “Engage to Excel,” which contained recommendations to the President to strengthen STEM education to meet the workforce needs of the next decade in the United States; and her selection by President Obama to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.
Sarah Miller, Executive Director
Sarah is the Executive Director of Tiny Earth at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, overseeing the international network of 10,000 students at ~270 institutions. She previously led two services in DoIT Academic Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that focused on transforming UW courses to active and blended learning. These services, Faculty Engagement and Strategic Learning Technology Consulting, account for 60% of the faculty development available for teaching and learning at UW-Madison, and 90% of the services for teaching with technology. She also led REACH, a Provost-level initiative to redesign UW-Madison’s highest-enrollment courses to be more active and inclusive, coordinating curricular transformation in 10 departments, with 80+ faculty and staff, and 450+ graduate teaching assistants who teach 10,000+ enrolled students per year, primarily in STEM. Prior to that, she built and led the first four cohorts of Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence (MTLE), an intensive year-long program for UW’s early-career faculty. The program enrolled 52 faculty who taught 7,000+ undergraduates in 106 courses during that time. While leading the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching in the 2000s, she taught multiple graduate-level courses about scientific teaching and mentoring, as well as undergraduate science courses. She has co-authored four publications in Science magazine, in addition to other education journals. She founded the Scientific Teaching Book Series and is a co-author of the books “Scientific Teaching” and “Entering Mentoring”.
Sarah’s professional interests focus on STEM education, with an emphasis on active and inclusive learning, institutional transformation at scale, and faculty development in higher education. She was trained as a biologist at UW-Madison. During her graduate work in plant pathology, she investigated the environmental impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by analyzing the microbial communities affiliated with plant roots. As an undergraduate majoring in botany, she researched plant ecology and evolution in areas ranging from the top of tropical Venezuelan tepuis (plateaus) to the bottom of Northern Wisconsin lakes.
Sarah has been named a National Academies Education Mentor in the Life Sciences and received the UW-Madison Teaching Academy Distinguished Teaching Award.
Trang Tran, Undergraduate Assistant to the Director
Trang is a senior studying Psychology and Biology with a certificate in Health and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She has previously worked with Tiny Earth instructors as a student, researching the effects of tea tree oil on the antibiotic production of soil bacteria alongside other Tiny Earth students. She is eager to find a pathway that connects fundamental life sciences to the progressive social aspects of life. Her career goals aim to better understand and apply health sciences in order to de-stigmatize illness and foster healthy communities.
Science & Training Director
Nichole is an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. Previously, Nichole was an Associate Research Scientist in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department at Yale University and had been supervising the Handelsman Lab research group. Nichole taught the introductory biology course Microbes to Molecules, which is the core curriculum for Tiny Earth, at Yale University and continues to teach it at the University of Connecticut. Nichole received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Microbiology and Entomology and conducted her postdoctoral research in the lab of Bruno Lemaitre at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her research focuses on gut microbiota and their impact on host physiology and susceptibility to disease.
Training Committee Chair
Debra Davis is an Assistant Professor at Wingate University, North Carolina. She is a microbial ecologist, specializing in wetland sediment microbial populations. She has adapted the Tiny Earth curriculum in several courses for Allied Health, Biology, Environmental Biology, and non-science majors, and has co-directed training of other instructors.
Summer Symposium Committee Chair
Aarti Raja earned her Ph.D. in Microbiology at the University of Maryland in 2000, completed her postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School and joined the faculty at Nova Southeastern University (NSU) in 2012. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Halmos College of Natural Science and Oceanography. Her areas of research include microbiology, and innovations in science education. Aarti is recognized at NSU and externally for her support of undergraduate students which has connected her students with national and international research communities. Aarti collaborates with researchers from across the globe via the project called the Tiny Earth (TE) which she brought to NSU. Aarti is also part of a program started at NSU called Science Alive! which connects the college community with local schools to bring hands-on science education and learning opportunities to school age children. In addition to research and teaching, Aarti gained vast experience in the field of infectious diseases consulting for the pharmaceutical and financial industries.
Tiny Earth in Titletown Symposium Committee Chair
Dr. Brian Merkel has been with UW-Green Bay for 20 years and teaches courses in Immunology, Advanced Microbiology, Microbiology and Human Disease and Society. He currently studies the effects of the herbal supplement, Echinacea, on the immune system in cell models and in human subjects. He is a pre-health advisor for human biology and biology students and the advisor for UW-Green Bay’s chapter of the national biological honor society, Tri-Beta. He also teaches medical students for the Medical College of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Dr. Merkel say this experience has helped him become a better mentor, advisor and teacher for all of the students he works with at UW-Green Bay.
Science Committee Co-Chair
Hans Wildschutte is an Assistant Professor at Bowling Green State University. He brings experience in adapting molecular approaches for use in environmental bacteria. As a research active member of a large undergraduate university, he teaches Introduction to Microbiology to sophomores and juniors using antibiotic-discovery research as the platform. Hans has implemented a molecular strategy for off-shoot to the curriculum to identify gene clusters encoding antagonistic factors in natural bacteria. This approach is designed to facilitate the discovery of antibiotics. Hans has a Ph.D. in Molecular Virology and Microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh. His postdoctoral training was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Science Committee Co-Chair
Dr. Kristen Butela, Foundations of Biology Course Developer and Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh, teaches research-based courses in microbiology. She enjoys educating her students through hands-on research because of “the excitement behind not being able to determine what is going to happen in the lab from one day to the next. The student and teacher are in the same boat; we equalize each other.”
Publication Committee Chair
Paula is an Associate Professor of Biology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. As a faculty member at a private liberal arts college, she brings expertise in mentoring undergraduate students toward increased self-efficacy in STEM. She believes the antibiotic-discovery research curriculum is an excellent tool for helping freshman and sophomore students engage in the practice of science, build confidence, and make a positive impact on global health. Paula received a bachelors degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology with high honors from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from Stanford University School of Medicine.
Wisconsin Support Team
Patricia Pointer, Multimedia Coordinator, Wisconsin Institute for Discovery