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President’s Professor: Jane Maienschein

March 01, 2007

School of Life Sciences expert emphasizes teaching, scholarship

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles that highlights the recent President’s Professors and Regents’ Professors at ASU.

Not all of us are destined to be scientists. However growing up near the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and having a nuclear physicist as a parent certainly influenced Jane Maienschein’s choices.

“It wasn’t whether you were going to do science, but what kind of science you were going to do,” Maienschein says.

Still, she contends that she just “bumbled” onto her present path.

Seven outstanding ASU faculty members are being honored as President's and Regents' Professor. The awards are among the highest honors for faculty excellence.

The President's Professor honor was created to recognize tenured faculty who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate education at ASU. This year's class includes Jane Maienschein, a professor of biology, pictured above; Jess Alberts, a professor of communication; and Ted Humphrey, a professor of philosophy in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU.

Regents’ Professors stand out for their accomplishments in many areas, including excellence in teaching, exceptional achievements in research or other creative activities, and national and international distinction in their fields. The Regents' Professors include Laurie Chassin, professor of psychology; Robert Denhardt, director of the School of Public Affairs; Subhash Mahajan, director of the School of Materials; and Richard Rogerson, Rondthaler chair of economics.

“History and philosophy of science is not something that any kid knows exists,” she says. “In fact, most undergraduates don’t realize it exists, either.”

Maienschein recently was named a President’s Professor by ASU President Michael Crow, an honor that “recognizes tenured faculty for their outstanding contributions to undergraduate education.”

For Maienschein, it’s an honor “richly deserved,” according to Robert Page, the founding director and a foundation professor in the School of Life Sciences.

“Jane is one of the most engaged faculty members on the campus, a model for all of us,” Page says.

Maienschein came to ASU in 1981, following a freshman year at MIT, a bachelor’s degree from Yale (when they finally admitted women), a doctorate from Indiana University and two years at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. She was hired as a visiting faculty member in the Department of Philosophy and Humanities by another of this year’s President’s Professors: Ted Humphrey, then the department chair.

“I think it is so wonderful that Ted is being honored at the same time,” Maienschein says. “He has really worked hard for ASU.”

Maienschein quickly recognized ASU’s tolerance for being different.

“This was a place that was already growing like crazy and willing to let people try things,” she says.

Within the year, after turning down a job offer from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maienschein accepted a permanent position at ASU in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her first course offerings – cross-listed in engineering and humanities, such as “Man and Machine,” “Science, Technology and Culture,” and “Values in Sciences” – gave way to classes that taught the histories of science, biology or medicine.

Her devotion to undergraduates’ needs and interests led her to develop a program in biology and society, to become half-and-half philosophy and biology, and then to move to the School of Life Sciences, which she helped to organize.

Maienschein established the Center for Biology and Society, which gained Regents’ formal approval in 2003 and which involves 22 life sciences faculty and 20 others outside of the school.

As the author of more than 70 articles, and editor or contributor to 10 books, including writing three of her own, Maienschein has found the university supportive of her interdisciplinary scholarship. Her most recent research focuses on the “Embryo Project” in partnership with life sciences assistant professor Manfred Laubichler and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, documents, interprets, and links materials and ideas related to embryo research over time, taking into account changing social and historical contexts.

She also is collaborating with professor Ron Rutowski and others in the School of Life Sciences to develop AzBioNet, backed by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, that will establish internships for undergraduates with businesses, medical facilities, legal, scientific and technological institutes throughout the Valley.

She also served as science adviser to Congressman Matt Salmon during the 105th Congress.

Maienschein notes that, while most centers focus on research, the Center for Biology and Society’s central mission includes promoting undergraduate and graduate educational opportunities, building collaboration and community, and nurturing “teacher-scholar-citizens” around three areas of concentration: history and philosophy of science; bioethics, policy and law; and communicating science.

Creating a learning environment that supports and encourages excellence is key for Maienschein. Although her career path was blessed with familial scientific underpinnings, many of her students at ASU are first-generation college students.

“I’ve had so many really smart, really great students who don’t have an idea of entitlement, or that we owe them,” Maienschein says. “There is a sense that they will invest in learning, and I will invest in their learning – and, as a result, we will all learn together.”

She credits her students with teaching her as much as she’s teaching them.

“It’s all about promoting discovery and really learning to think critically about the world,” Maienschein says. “I need to keep having people reminding me to do that, and that doing that with others it makes us all better. It is a partnership.”

Maienschein’s focus on students has led to many awards, including her selection in 2000 as Parent’s Association Professor of the Year.

“The Parent’s Association award was a huge honor, for several reasons,” she says. “Students initiated the nomination. That’s important and means a lot. And it was a total surprise that I won. Plus, it’s a warm feeling knowing that parents cared enough to set up this award and that we are all one big family.”

A Regents’ Professorship followed in 2002.

The perspective of partnership among institutions, professors and students makes Maienschein inspirational for many. Recent graduate Kristin Bolfert, now an administrative assistant at the Center, feels that Maienschein gave her invaluable guidance.

“She is a fantastic leader and role model who is full of energy and is truly passionate about her students,” Bolfert says. “She has made my academic career more valuable than anything I could have hoped for, and I’m certain that is true for countless others as well.”

Maienschein stresses that scholarship and teaching are not contradictory.

“There is a temptation to think that it is the grants and only research dollars that the university values,” she says. “In fact, this university cares deeply about teaching, not as a separate activity but as something that together with scholarship makes us whole. In our Biology and Society group, we are engaged in bringing students into labs and research projects, and also getting faculty and students out into the community, volunteering, and talking about their research. All of that flow of knowledge and creativity and discovery is really important and what makes us who we are as a university.”