On the path to find our professional callings, we often seek guidance from those with more experience. When JoAnne Engebrecht started her academic journey as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, all she knew was that she liked science. There was little direction besides passion.
“It wasn’t until a professor said, ‘Come work in my lab,’ and served as a very important role model and mentor to me, that I even considered what being a scientist means,” said Engebrecht, now a professor of molecular and cellular biology at UC Davis.
“Being a woman in science, that was really critical for me, and so I feel like I want to make sure that I provide that opportunity for others.” - JoAnne Engebrecht
For 15 years, Engebrecht has been an integral part of the College of Biological Sciences’ Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. A geneticist at heart, her research focuses on meiosis, the cell division process that produces sex cells. But professorship is an occupation with many other duties, including teaching and mentorship. Despite a full plate, Engebrecht makes it work.
For her work, Engebrecht was awarded the 2017-2018 College of Biological Sciences Faculty Teaching Award.
“Dr. Engebrecht’s dedication to her students ensures they have a one-of-a-kind experience at the College of Biological Sciences,” said College of Biological Sciences Dean Mark Winey. “Her teaching and mentorship continue to help mold the minds of tomorrow’s scientists, and her involvement with the curriculum development has been instrumental in success of majors offered by the College.”
"JoAnne excels in all aspects of being a scientist including research, mentoring and teaching,” added Distinguished Professor Jodi Nunnari, chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. “She is a gifted and caring instructor inside and outside of the classroom. She is also a dedicated colleague. She was vice-chair of teaching in MCB for several years during which she helped innovate and maintain the excellence of our teaching mission. We are lucky to have her in MCB and the College.
Making genetics accessible and relatable
Engebrecht began studying meiosis while completing postdoctoral research at Yale University. Today, she uses the model organism C. elegans to investigate how meiosis differs between males and females. Even after all these years at the workbench, Engebrecht still gets enthusiastic when observing the process through a microscope.
“It’s beautiful to watch the chromosomes and how they interact,” she said. “From a visual perspective, it makes me really excited.”
For many years, Engebrecht has helped develop undergraduate and graduate curriculum for the College of Biological Sciences. According to her colleagues in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, she was a “key player” in revising the curriculum for the Biochemistry, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology graduate group, developing courses like MCB/BCB 2010 “Genetics and Genomics.” Separated into modules, the course uses different model systems to cover topics in genetics and genomics.
"Dr. Engebrecht is a great teacher. I love that she always takes the time to really go through each experiment and each thought process she has. To actually see the genetics at work and to be exposed it in a real setting where you are in the lab and working with them firsthand is phenomenal." -Kendi Phelps
Engebrecht also teaches many classes, from introductory courses like MCB 10 “Introduction to Human Heredity” and BIS 101 “Genes and Gene Expression” to advanced classes like MCB 164 “Advanced Eukaryotic Genetics.” Sometimes as many as 300 students are present in her lecture hall.
“What I try to convey to my students is how exciting science is,” said Engebrecht. “One of my goals in teaching, particularly when it comes to undergraduate genetics, is conveying this idea that genetics impacts students’ lives, and it’s only going to impact their lives more moving forward.”
Engebrecht makes this connection by sharing examples of genetics stories in the news media during her lectures. “Getting students to read popular press articles that reference a scientific study makes it more real to them,” she said, noting that she wants her students to become critical readers. “There’s a lot of stuff out there on the internet and many of it might not be accurate, so having a knowledge base to be able to evaluate is really important,” she added.
For graduate students, Engebrecht replaces popular press pieces with studies in the field, asking her graduate students to evaluate the veracity of the findings. It’s not about the data per se, but focusing on the interpretation of the data.
“When scientists write journal articles, many times it’s easier to make a very bold statement about their data,” she said. “If you really look at the data, the question is, does the data match what that bold statement is? Many times, it does; but many times, it doesn’t.”
Promoting equality in science
A focus of Engebrecht’s is elevating women and underrepresented minorities in the sciences. Since becoming a full professor, she’s mentored over 50 undergraduates, including many from diverse backgrounds.
This isn’t the first time Engebrecht has been recognized for her mentorship. In 2014, she received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research. She also received the Biochemistry, Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Award for Excellence in Teaching and was a 2016-2017 ADVANCE Scholar, which celebrates outstanding mentorship and scholarship from women faculty in STEM at UC Davis.
“I do want to emphasize that a lot of my teaching is in the lab, and I always have a lot of undergraduates in the lab. I get a lot of joy in watching people come into my lab and develop. They don’t have to become a scientist, but I like watching them grow and figure out what they want do.”
One such student was Briana Rocha-Gregg, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, Molecular and Cellular Biology at UC Davis. After taking an undergraduate class with Engebrecht, Rocha-Gregg joined the Engebrecht Lab and worked there for 18 months. Rocha-Gregg, who in 2014 received a B.S. in Cell Biology, said Engebrecht inspired her interest in molecular biology and inspired the confidence she needed to pursue a Ph.D.
“She has a genuine passion for mentoring and teaching,” Rocha-Gregg said. “She mentors with intention—working to develop students’ research, critical thinking and communication skills.”
“I believe I would not be where I am today without her support,” she added.
Not all of Engebrecht’s students go into academia and that’s not her goal either. Her objective is to help them find the right professional passion, regardless of industry or area.
“They don’t have to become a scientist,” Engebrecht said. “Watching them grow and figure out what they want to do, if I can play a little role in that then I feel like I’ve done my job.”