Grace Spatafora is the Given Professor of Biology and Pre-Medical Science.
1. You tend to invite a lot of students to join you in your research. How is this symbiotic relationship mutually beneficial?
I am committed to providing as many students as I can with an opportunity to engage in research first-hand, but only if they express a genuine interest in the research process and can articulate why they choose to explore microbial pathogenesis as their research topic. This year I have 8 guys working in my laboratory, all committed to better understanding how Streptococcus mutans, an oral pathogen, reaps havoc in the oral cavity. The students benefit by committing to a senior capstone experience that could earn them graduation with distinction, a chance to communicate their research findings at a professional meeting (this year’s meeting will be held in New Orleans, LA), and the opportunity to contribute to the published literature (one of my student’s work recently made the cover of the Journal of Bacteriology). I benefit from the students’ hard work which moves the research along in a way that continues to earn major funding from the National Institutes of Health, and by being able to showcase undergraduate research at national meetings. I also get to watch these students grow as independent researchers and problem solvers, some of whom go on to pursue research careers of their own. What could be more gratifying?
2. If you were an organelle in an animal cell, which one would you be and why?
I’d be the nucleus for sure. I guess you could say that I like to control things….not in a bad way though. I don’t consider myself to be at all bossy or a control freak…but given the opportunity I do like to take charge of a situation and manage it so as to ensure the best possible outcome. Second place would go to the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, since I am rather “energetic” in the classroom where I have been known to “walk like a bacterium” and mimic Z-DNA.
3. Which living person do you most admire?
This is a tough question. I’ve given this some thought and I’d have to say it would be Christiane Amanpour, former Chief International Correspondent at CNN and current head anchorwoman at ABC News. Christiane’s work over the years as a journalist has included direct coverage of the Persian Gulf War, the Bosnian War, the Siege of Sarajevo, Hurricane Katrina, and most recently Egypt’s revolution in Tahrir Square. She is seemingly fearless of reporting the news from areas of great conflict, not to mention the many exclusive interviews she’s conducted with world leaders from the Middle East, Europe, and Africa. She isn’t a two-time recipient of the Peabody Award for nothing! This is not to say that she isn’t a controversial figure in the world of news casting; indeed she is. But in my view she holds strong to her convictions. She is committed to telling the truth and giving all sides of a story equal coverage. I have always thought that in another life I’d come back as a journalist, and if this were the case, then I’d want to be Christiane Amanpour.
4. Last year, the American Association of University of Women released a report about the challenges girls and women encounter in studying and working in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). This is a complex issue, but what is one thing that STEM programs could do to attract and retain women?
I think one of the most important things STEM programs could do is see to it that only the most outstanding science and math educators are hired into our elementary and secondary schools. Our teachers need to make math and science more approachable for both boys and girls. I had fabulous teachers in grade school who made learning in these disciplines fun! STEM programs also need to bring more flexibility into STEM careers so that women won’t be penalized for taking time “off” to have children.
5. You teach courses in cell biology, microbiology, molecular genetics, and microbial pathogenesis. What sparked your interest in studying structures invisible to the human eye?
Well, if you were to ask my Microbiology students they’d tell you that I became a microbiologist because you can’t hear the bacteria scream when you place them in the autoclave! But seriously, I was a young scientist in training just as the genetic engineering revolution was getting underway. At that time, bacteria were the workhorses of genetic manipulation. But then in the early ‘80’s emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases took center stage and bacteria regained their identity. I guess you could say that I was in the right place at the right time….a time when everything was about microorganisms…and not only about how they can make us sick, but how they make the world as we know it. Let’s face it, without microbes, we would not be here.