A Life Beyond the Microscope: VP Joan W. Bennett

From teaching genetics and conducting research on mycotoxin producing fungi at Tulane University to acting as the Associate VP for the Office for the Promotion on Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics, Professor Joan W. Bennett has proven to be an exemplary woman in science.   Although Hurricane Katrina disrupted her research in 2005, she turned this devastating event into the inspiration for a new venue of research.   As a result of the major flood damage affecting the majority of the city –including her home—Professor Bennett left New Orleans for New Jersey.   In her laboratory, Professor Bennett has examined the volatile organic compounds thought to be associated with “sick building syndrome” and developed model systems to investigate their physiological impact.   This “syndrome” occurs when buildings flood and indoor molds take over structures causing potential health issues for those who occupy these buildings. 

Before coming to Rutgers, Professor Bennett helped to develop the Newcomb Center for Research on Women as well as establish a women’s study major at Tulane University.   She also worked to bridge the gap between the sciences and the humanities by creating courses that examined topics such as the crossover between the language of novels and the language of science.

Beyond the laboratory and classroom, Professor Bennett continues to work to create a more equitable space for women and minorities within the sciences.    Professor Bennett founded the Rutgers Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics (SciWomen) in 2006.   The mission of the SciWomen office is to promote gender and racial equity in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering -- fields that tend to be disproportionately male.   For example, SciWomen provides a venue to establish strong mentoring relationships that are critical to the success of women in the academic world of STEM.   She also promotes work-life balance through her own work and life.  The mother of three children, Professor Bennett admits that, “balancing one’s profession and family life is difficult but not impossible.”    Her efforts at Rutgers through the SciWomen office allow her to establish the means for other women in STEM to seek help, guidance, and to gain access to resources essential to excel in their careers in academia. 

Additionally, Professor Bennett is the principal investigator of a 3.67 million dollar ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation to initiate the Rutgers University Faculty Advancement and Institutional Re-imagination (RU FAIR) program.   The goal of the RU FAIR program is to remove the barriers to recruitment and retention of women faculty, to advocate for greater diversity in senior leadership positions, and to provide higher visibility to the achievements of Rutgers’ women faculty in STEM disciplines.   An important part of the RU FAIR grant is the ability to designate minigrants.   Through RU FAIR Mini-grants, faculty members gain visibility through projects and activities so that they can attain tenure.   With similar purposes of promoting the retention of faculty members, the program’s Life Cycle grants aid in the maintenance of the flexibility necessary for a successful career in science.   These grants are specifically designed to help alleviate the financial and career-based strains placed on faculty members in the wake of a personal emergency.   Through these grants, faculty members are able to supplement the staff and materials needed to keep their work going in their absence.

As a professor for the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology at Rutgers University, the Associate Vice President of the Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics, and the PI of several other research and outreach programs, Professor Joan W. Bennett is an exemplary woman in science and a living example of how, “Systems should appeal to and be open to excellence, whichever form it comes in.”