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Susan Wessler

Distinguished Professor of Genetics, Department of Botany and Plant Sciences
University of California President’s Chair
Susan Wessler
Fostering a New Generation of Scientists
In a recent survey of 4800 students from around the world, 89% thought science is "cool," but only half considered a career in one of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). An innovative lab pioneered by Susan Wessler at UCR is energizing freshmen with hands-on experimental research experiences, encouraging bright minds to become scientists.

Areas of Expertise

Areas of Expertise:
  • Transposable elements
  • Genetic diversity
  • Genome evolution
  • Bioinformatics
  • Scientific teaching
College: Affiliations:
  • Center for Plant Cell Biology
  • Institute for Integrative Genome Biology
Books: Press Releases/Articles: Profiles:

Select Honors and Distinctions

  • Excellence in Science Award, FASEB (2012)
  • Stephen Hales Prize, American Society of Plant Biologists (2011)
  • National Academy of Sciences, Home Secretary (2011)
  • Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2007)
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor (2006)
  • Fellow, American Association of the Advancement of Science (2006)
  • National Academy of Sciences, Member (1998)

Research Summary

Contribution of transposable elements to gene and genome evolution

Q&A

Q: Describe your research and its applications.
I have been interested in transposable elements (TEs) for the past 3 decades. TEs are also called mobile DNA or junk DNA. They are pieces of DNA that can move from one chromosomal location to another (a process called transposition) and in the process increase their copy number. We now know that TEs are the most abundant component of the genomes of all multicellular plants and animals. For example, they account for over 50% of the human genome.

Q: Where did the inspiration for your research come from?
I have been inspired by Dr. Barbara McClintock who discovered TEs in the 1940s. For this she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983.

Q: What are the goals of your research?
Stated simply, to determine how TEs contribute to genetic diversity and adaptation. We use computational analysis (bioinformatics) to identify and characterize TEs in genomic sequence. Given that the genomes of more and more organisms are being sequenced — almost weekly and soon to be daily — and that TEs are the largest component of genomes, this keeps us very busy. We are particularly interested in TEs that are still capable of moving around (active TEs). Though only a tiny fraction of the TEs in a genome, they contribute to generating genetic diversity, which is the raw material of evolution and adaptation. To isolate active TEs, we first perform computational analysis of the genomic sequence of an organism (plant or animal) to identify candidate active TEs. Then, we go to the laboratory and perform experiments to determine whether these candidate TEs are actually still able to move from one chromosomal location to another (to transpose).

Q: Why is your work important?
For (at least) three reasons: First, although all biologists recognize that evolution is the unifying concept in biology, we still do not understand the mechanisms that generate genetic diversity. TEs generate genetic diversity and we are beginning to understand how they do this. Second, because TEs account for the major part of most genomes, if we can identify them (called annotation) we make it easier for other researchers to find what they are looking for in the genome. Third, because TEs, unlike other DNA, have the ability to move around, we (and others) have modified them in the lab to convert them into tools that scientists can use in their experiments. For example, one can insert a gene into a TE so that when the TE jumps it takes the gene with it.

Q: How does it benefit society?
This is basic research. We ask how things work. In this case, we ask how TEs work. They can be fashioned into tools for the genetic engineers’ tool box. They also may be responsible for creating the genetic diversity needed for a species to survive in a changing environment. These are all hypotheses that we are currently testing.

Q: What are the big challenges researchers in your field are trying to answer?
How does evolution works at the molecular level? How can life survive with so much of its genome derived from transposable elements?

Q: What inspired you to create a science learning lab?
The disconnect between the excitement in my research laboratory and the lack of excitement in our large introductory science lecture classes — one of which I taught for 6 years at my previous university.

Q: What unique opportunities does your lab offer for science education?
Students who take our class learn about the practice of science rather than simply learning facts.

Q: How can the STEM fields be better populated by underrepresented groups?
All students need to be exposed to scientific research early in their academic career. Our Dynamic Genome courses at UCR are a model that should be emulated.

Q: Why are there fewer women in the STEM fields?
I actually think that women are now the majority in biology undergraduate classes and may now even receive the most degrees in biology, but there is a lack of women in the physical sciences (math, computer sciences, physics, chemistry and engineering) and fewer women faculty in all areas of science. The reasons for this are complicated, but largely center on the fact that the burden of raising children and homemaking chores fall on women, even when they are professionals.

Q: How do you communicate your passion for science in the classroom and lab?
I have a lot of enthusiasm for things that excite me and science excites me.

Q: What are your suggestions for elevating science education in the country?
In our current academic system, the tenure decision and most promotions are based largely on research productivity, not the quality and impact of teaching. If we want professors to be better teachers and innovate in the classroom, we need to reward them better for these efforts.

Q: How can Americans become more involved in and informed about science issues?
Stop watching television news and talk shows that breed distrust in science and scientists. Instead, try to find some of the terrific science shows on cable and some of the wonderful general interest science books that are pitched to the general public.

Q: What does "Living the Promise" mean to you?

  1. Bringing the best scientific training to our undergraduates.
  2. Making sure that they take advantage of the wonderful opportunities they have been given to improve the quality of their lives, in addition to seeing that they are on track for exciting career opportunities.
  3. I want to see the richness of minorities among our undergraduates reflected in the graduate school population(s).
  4. It also means elevating UCR to the top ring of the UC’s, both in research and science education.
Q: In your spare time, what are you reading?
Magazines I read include The New Yorker, Scientific American and the New York Times Book Review. I read a lot, mostly nonfiction.
  • Biographies, memoirs — Catherine the Great (Robert Massie); Life (Keith Richards); Open (Andre Agassi); The Last Boy (Jane Leavy); Steve Jobs (Walter Isaccson); Arguably (Christopher Hitchens); Just Kids (Patti Smith)
  • Popular science — Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions (Lisa Randall); Thinking Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman); The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddhartha Mukherjee); The Disappearing Spoon (Sam Kean)
  • History — The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson); The President and the Assassin (Scott Miller); To End all Wars (Adam Hochschild); Destiny of the Republic (Candice Miller)
Q: How do your students inspire you?
The best thing about my job is watching a new graduate student mature into a real scientist.

Q: What advice do you have for students graduating in the next five years?
For graduate students: Broaden your skill set to learn more about science education and industry. The golden age of academic jobs is over but that does not mean that there are not other jobs out there for talented scientists. For undergraduates: Start thinking about and planning your future from day one. Have second and third choices and be prepared academically for all of them when you graduate. Get to know professors early in your college years.

Q: What is it about UCR that makes this a great place to be?
  1. A student population that looks like Southern California.
  2. A high proportion of students who, like me, are the children of parents who did not go to or graduate from college.
  3. It is a UC and as such there are many models of success and excellence to inspire us.

Susan Wessler “Undergraduates can get ‘turned off’ in introductory science courses and never sign up for another one. For students to understand and become energized about science, they need to first participate in the discovery process.”

—Susan Wessler