Bennett, Joan W.

Professor; Associate Vice President for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics
Areas of Interest: 
Fungal genetics and secondary metabolism, Genomics, Biodegradation and biotechnology, Bioethics, Biology of Women, History of Microbiology.
My Story: 
My father, John Anton Wennstrom, was a Swedish-speaking immigrant from a Finnish island archipelago in the Baltic Sea. My mother, Kerttu Johnson Wennstrom was from Brooklyn, New York, born of Finnish immigrants parents. She did not learn to speak English until she started school at the age of 6. Scandinavian traditions were so important in my home that my parents thought that Americans didn’t have a real culture.

They were intelligent and hard working people for whom high school graduation was a significant educational achievement. For them, college was a poorly understood but laudable objective that they hoped to bestow on their offspring. They wanted me to become a teacher. I liked to please my parents, so that is what I wanted too. I spent my Brooklyn childhood planning to become a fifth grade teacher, work for a few years, marry Mr. Right, and then stay home to raise a family. In retrospect, my Girl Scout troop leader, an energetic woman named Doris Engborg, planted the first seeds of change. I got hooked on earning the nature badges and worked my way through the list: tree, bird, mammal, wild plant, insect, even bee keeper. (There was a way city girls could get around actually keeping bees if you visited enough hives). When I was fourteen, my family moved to a suburb, and it became easier to find nature. There was a wooded county park near our home and I wandered around a lot, just off the path, happy to be alone in the woods. I was particularly attracted to “oddball” plant life such as skunk cabbages, Indian pipes, and fungi. Once, after a heavy rain, I dug up a clump of mushrooms, planted them in a wooden box in the basement, and watered them until they turned into black slime. None of my friends knew about these interests. I would have been mortified if people at my high school found out that I had tried to grow a fungus garden.

My high school biology class provided my first opportunity to look through a microscope. I loved it! I brought pond water, unpasteurized milk, and moldy bread to school, able to disguise this geeky behavior from my friends by telling them that the teacher, Rachel Ferrara, was giving extra credit. Mrs. Ferrara was a gifted teacher. I especially remember the time she lectured on plant roots. “Roots need soil, water and light,” she intoned. The whole class dutifully wrote down: “Roots need soil, water, light.” Then she didn’t say anything for a long time and just stood and glared at us. I can’t remember her exact words but I definitely remember the message, “Did you hear what I just said? Plant roots are almost always under the ground. How can they need light?” Then she added, “Don’t just copy down and memorize. Use your eyes. Use your brains. Think!”

Bennett, Joan W.
Joan Bennett 1962

At the time, I felt duped. Wasn’t a teacher supposed to give us true and correct facts? Now that I am a teacher myself, I realize she had done something more important. It is easy to transmit facts, but it is not easy to make people think. Mrs. Ferraro did both.

In high school I was a decent but not great student, with an aptitude for scoring well on standardized exams. I won a scholarship to Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey, a small liberal arts college founded by Swedish immigrants. It was the 1960s. At that time, most science departments at major research universities had all-male faculties. Professional women were often shunted into teaching jobs at colleges away from the centers of research. Upsala College was one of these colleges. Women professors taught most of my biology courses. In particular, I remember Louisa Fanale (who did her Ph.D. at Rutgers while raising a family and working part time at Upsala) and Dorothy McMeekin, a recent Cornell graduate who was less than ten years older than I was. Years later, after my “consciousness had been raised,” my good fortune registered. My scout leader, my high school biology teacher, and my most important undergraduate professors were all women. They were committed teachers with exacting standards and a passion for their work. They had tacitly demonstrated that marriage and family didn’t have to be divorced from work and science.

The summer between my junior and senior years of college, Dorothy McMeekin steered me into a National Science Foundation program for undergraduates. I worked in the Plant Breeding Department at Cornell University, on a forage crop called bird’s foot trefoil. There was research in the field scoring plants for desirable agronomic characters, and there was research in the laboratory examining chromosomes for possible cytogenetic aberrations. At the end of the summer, my supervisor, Robert Seaney, took me aside. “You have a knack for this sort of thing,” he said. “You ought to go to graduate school and become a plant geneticist like Barbara McClintock.” I said, “What is graduate school and who is Barbara McClintock?”

Graduate school, I soon learned, was a place where you could get a tuition waiver and a stipend to work for an advanced degree. It seemed too good to be true. Barbara McClintock, I learned, was a prominent cytogeneticist. She had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and had been president of the Genetics Society of America back in the 1940s when it was a rarity for women to have that kind of visibility. (Many years later, when McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology, I felt a frisson of reflected glory.) So I applied to graduate school. My strong Graduate Record Exams scores apparently balanced the fairly mediocre grades I’d gotten in chemistry and physics. The University of Chicago offered a fellowship: full tuition plus enough money to live on (albeit modestly) in return for going to school. A dream had come true. My parents cheered me on and bought me a one-way plane ticket to Chicago.

Bennett, Joan W.
Joan in her Upsala College Dorm room, 1963.

My first graduate genetics class at the University of Chicago had only about seven students. All of the others were confident young men who had gone to big name schools. They totally ignored me. I felt insignificant, outclassed, and afraid that I would flunk out. I spent most of my time studying like crazy. When the professor returned the first exams, he threw them down on the lectern in a disgusted fashion and then wrote the grades on the board. There was a 95, a 65 and everything else was lower. I sat there praying I had gotten the 65. Then, when it was the 95, I felt a shivery kind of inner validation. Decades later, I still remember that moment. It was a genuine turning point.

While at the University of Chicago, under the mentorship of Edward Garber, I earned a master’s degree focusing on the cytogenetics of a green plant and a Ph.D. studying the genetics of a little-known mold called Aspergillus heterothallicus. The president of the University of Chicago at that time was George Beadle, who, with Edward Tatum, had promulgated the one-gene, one-enzyme theory. Beadle and Tatum had done their groundbreaking research using another mold called Neurospora crassa. Although Beadle was not doing research at the time and rarely visited our department, his proximity sent an implicit message: Studying molds was cool. Research on microscopic fungi could lead to the Nobel Prize and to the presidency of a major university.

By the time I finished my Ph.D., I was married and did what many young brides do: I followed my husband to the place where he had found a good job, in our case the city of New Orleans. The Agricultural Research Service there hired me to develop a genetic system to study a mold that made a carcinogenic toxin called aflatoxin. Aflatoxin contamination of food crops was and is an international health hazard. The fungi that make aflatoxin lack sexual phases (mycologists call them “imperfect”) and in those days it was almost impossible to conduct genetic studies on imperfect fungi. However, a few imperfect fungi possessed an “alternative to sex” called the parasexual cycle. My job was to elucidate the parasexual cycle in Aspergillus parasiticus.

It was my debut as an independent scientist. My boss, Dr. Leo Goldblatt, gave me a laboratory, a supply budget, and a blessing. Then he left me alone. The University of Chicago training proved invaluable. Working almost entirely by myself, I happily isolated mutants, elucidated the parasexual cycle, and learned a lot of organic chemistry. After two years of intense research and back-to-back pregnancies, I was hired in the Tulane University Biology Department. It was the first time that department had given a woman a chance at a tenure track position.

When I started, my sons Jack and Dan were both still in diapers. I was both overworked and ecstatic. I’d been given a chance at a “real” job. And I knew the rules: publish or perish. The parasexual cycle, however, was not going well. It was a slow and clumsy way to do genetics. If I stayed with it, I’d never get tenure. About that time, scientists at MIT had initiated research on the biosynthesis of aflatoxin and shown that the chemical skeleton came from acetate units. Nothing else was known of the pathway. Following the example of George Beadle, who had pioneered the use of blocked mutants to elucidate biochemical pathways, my collection of blocked aflatoxin mutants became a valuable resource. In collaboration with Louise Lee, a chemist at the Department of Agriculture, we used the mutants to dissect some of the stages of aflatoxin biosynthesis. Louise and I had a terrific time doing research together, published our findings, were invited to speak at national meetings, and became good friends. My climb up the academic ladder was uneventful, and I received tenure the same year my third son, Mark, was born.

Tenure was only the beginning of what has been a long, active and fulfilling career. Along the way, I have learned that being an academic scientist is a lot more than performing experiments in the laboratory. It involves collaborating with colleagues, writing grant proposals, organizing symposia, editing manuscripts, teaching courses, supervising graduate students, traveling to meetings, generating peer reviews, and a fair amount of “political” science. In many instances, diplomatic and social skills are as important as scientific hypotheses in making a project work. With each passing year, it’s been less lonely to be a woman in science, although I am disappointed that there still aren’t more of us. It is a wonderful, wonderful life.
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