The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)—the preeminent scientific institution in the United States, the world’s largest general scientific society, and publisher of the Science family of journals—has selected Jennifer Normanly, professor and head of the College of Natural Sciences's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, to join the newest class of AAAS Fellows, among the most prestigious honors bestowed by the scientific community. 

Normanly is joined by other UMass faculty members and officials, including: Michelle Budig, professor of sociology and senior vice provost for faculty and academic affairs; Ramesh Sitaraman, Distinguished University Professor of Computer Science; and Kumble Subbaswamy, UMass Amherst’s immediate former chancellor, University of Massachusetts interim senior vice president for academic affairs, student affairs and equity and a former professor of physics.

Jennifer Normanly, professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
Jennifer Normanly, professor and head of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Elected “for distinguished contributions to the field of education, specifically for her role in institutional transformation of teaching practices towards inclusion and equity,” Normanly got her start in research as an undergraduate, when she marched into a faculty-member’s office and asked if she could work in his lab—not something often done at the time. It was a transformative experience for Normanly, and as she pursued advanced studies at CalTech she became one of the earliest researchers who deployed the automated synthesis of DNA. 

“We won’t see diversity in the next generation of scientists if we aren’t engaging all of our undergraduate STEM majors,” says Normanly. “When I was contemplating serving as the next head of the biochemistry and molecular biology department, I decided I want to have a positive impact on all of our undergraduate majors, which were rapidly increasing at the time.”

“This sparked my interest in the question that I have pursued throughout my career, both on the research and teaching fronts: how can you take things that are difficult to do manually or in small numbers and do them on a large scale?”

From automated DNA synthesis, her interest next took her to high-throughput analysis of the low-abundance, small molecules that regulate plant growth. 

Normanly, who has spent her entire faculty career at UMass Amherst, first became department head of biochemistry and molecular biology in 2011, and her immediate thought was how to give every undergraduate major the same kind of research experience that she had found so important for her own career. “BMB faculty all fervently believe that every undergraduate should have a research experience,” she says, “but how can you do that for the approximately 650 majors we have every year?” 

The answer was to team up with her colleagues in the College of Natural Sciences to acquire the necessary funding in order to adopt the SEA-PHAGES program, a two-semester, discovery-based undergraduate research course that gives students a wide variety of lab skills to better prepare them for future success as researchers. 

Normanly and her co-principal investigators were successful in securing a HHMI Inclusive Excellence project grant that allowed them to implement the SEA-PHAGES curriculum in the introductory Biology lab course that is required of approximately 1,200 undergraduates across multiple campus majors per year. She expanded on this initiative in her own department by working with BMB faculty to convert all of the required BMB lab courses into Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences, or CURES. The idea is to give every undergraduate major training in, and an authentic experience with, scientific research.

“The AAAS has been aware of the need to reform science education for a very long time in order to diversify STEM,” says Normanly. “It’s an honor to be recognized by them for my efforts at UMass Amherst to do just that.”

This story was originally published by the UMass News Office.

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