Friday, September 25, 2015


I'm going to interrupt my Olympic hiking posts to interject a Washington D.C. post.  Last week I traveled to D.C. to receive an early career scientist award, and several members of my supportive and loving family joined me.  It was an overwhelming experience because I kept feeling the gravity of good fortune:  to be successful, to be supported, to be alive.  Also, I had to give a 5-minute acceptance speech, and I was a bit nervous about that.  Despite the weighty emotions, it was such a wonderful experience!  My grandparents rode a subway for the first time.  My daughters visited the national monuments on the Mall.  We visited the National Zoo and caught a glimpse of the newborn panda on the PandaCam.  It was spectacular.    

Below is a copy of my speech, which can also be viewed at minute 33 by following this link.  Don't be alarmed by the login.  Just type in your info and login.    

Heather's acceptance speech:

Thank you very much, Joon.  I am so very honored to be here today accepting this award from ARS.  I am especially honored to be here among the many outstanding ARS employees who are also being honored today.  Perhaps the other honorees will resonate with the strange feeling I have of receiving an honor for what has most certainly been a team effort.  Dozens, if not hundreds, of people have contributed to this achievement, starting with my husband Ian and my loving and supportive family, some of whom have traveled from Iowa to be here today, including my grandparents.  Thank you for being here to share this moment with me, as you have time and again throughout my career.  My team also includes the fantastic doctors, nurses, friends, co-workers, and even acquaintances who navigated me through two diagnoses of breast cancer in the past 5 years, and whose support was critical to my survival. 

I want also to thank the wonderful support staff and scientific colleagues at my location in the beautiful Ames, Iowa who facilitate my research and outreach endeavors.  It is impossible to name all of the mentors and collaborators who are in my heart to thank, but I would like to name those whose guidance and intellect have been critical throughout my career:  Jo Handelsman, Thad Stanton, Al Klingelhutz, Shawn Bearson, Torey Looft, Karen-Cloud-Hansen, and John Bunge.  Thank you for paving the way, or for helping me to pave the way when the way could not be found. 

My scientific impacts have been in the field of microbial ecology, in particular regarding antibiotic resistance gene diversity.  You are perhaps familiar with antibiotic resistance in terms of “Superbugs”, which is a word for pathogenic bacteria that have become so resistant to antibiotics that we can no longer treat them with antibiotics.  I don’t study Superbugs, but I’m interested in the reservoir of antibiotic resistance genes in the environment, how resistance genes move among bacteria, and in alternatives to antibiotics that might prevent the emergence of new Superbugs.  My research has helped to define resistance gene diversity in both pristine and antibiotic-impacted ecosystems, from Alaska to the pig gut.  I hope that the data my collaborators and I generate will inform scientifically sound policies to reduce the risk of making more Superbugs, thus improving health and food safety.         

I’d like to conclude by making two comments to my daughters.  In high school I took an AP chemistry class taught by a first-rate teacher, Mr. Ferrell.  One day following an exam, Mr. Ferrell tried to comfort the lesser-achieving students by assuring us that we’d all hit our wall someday.  “Everyone hits their wall,” he said.  Ever since that day, I have been fearful of my wall, wondering how high it would be, how wide it would be, would it hurt when I hit it?   Daughters, I am happy to report that there are no walls, only doors, and it is up to you to walk through them.

 Second, in 2005 I was representing the Graduate Women in Science organization at the University of Wisconsin’s Committee on Women.  I was attending this committee meeting because graduate students in Madison were not entitled to maternity leave of any kind, even if it was unpaid.  I had researched several other universities who had mechanisms for maternity leave for graduate students and was presenting my case to the committee.  Afterwards the one male member of the Committee said, “Women think they can have it all!”  Daughters, I am happy to report that with the right support and some hard work, yes, you can have it all.

I am humbled by this award, and I am grateful to ARS for being a door and for being a part of my having it all.


  1. Congrats Heather! You are amazing & an inspiration on so many fronts! Thank you for being such an awesome person!!

  2. What a lovely speech. Congratulations on your award. Well done!

  3. Heather, this is awesome! I have been busy wrapped up in my own little world for the past several weeks so am late to see this, but hope you will accept my congrats as better-late-than-never. Wonderful words of advice for your lovely daughters and for all of us. Kudos to you, H-bomb!

    1. Hi Frank! So great to hear from you! You, in turn, deserve congratulations for your outstanding teaching achievements. I saw your photo in a Boston newspaper! Bravo!!!!