Professor of genetics Nancy Manley focuses on teaching students how to ask questions and learn so that they can continue to grow as scientists long after graduation.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
My undergraduate degree (B.A.) is from Bryn Mawr College; my Ph.D. is from M.I.T. I am currently a professor in the department of genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, chair of the Developmental Biology Alliance, and director of the Integrated Life Sciences graduate admissions program.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I started at UGA in April 2002. I had previously been an assistant professor at the (then) Medical College of Georgia (now Georgia Regents University). My husband took a position with a biotech company in Athens, and I was fortunate that a faculty position in an appropriate department was available for me to apply, and that they wanted to hire me!
What are your favorite courses and why?
Of course a lot of my teaching is done in my research laboratory, with undergraduates and graduate students (and even high school students) doing research projects. This kind of teaching allows students at all levels to participate in research firsthand. That experience is invaluable, regardless of what they do after they leave UGA. My favorite course currently is “Evolution and Development,” a relatively new graduate course that I co-developed and teach with assistant professor Doug Menke (also in genetics). I like this course because the field of “Evo-Devo” integrates several different fields and experimental approaches to address a fundamental question in biology—how did the diversity of life evolve? The students who take the course tend to come from diverse backgrounds, and so the students can learn from each other as well as from the instructors. This course tends to expand how students think about problems in science, and I think that is a good thing.
What interests you about your field?
My research is really at the intersection of several fields—developmental biology, immunology, aging, molecular genetics and evolutionary biology. That diversity of approaches really allows us to ask broad questions, but approach them in different specific ways. Studying the development of the immune system allows us to ask fundamental questions about how tissues and organs form during embryonic development, but puts those basic questions into the context of a very biomedically relevant goal of understanding how the immune system works. Finally, studying the aging of the immune system gives us a direct clinical goal of trying to improve immune system function that affects everyone, and may lead to improved immune function in older people.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
While at UGA I have been able to develop a diverse research program and as a result have been very successful in obtaining extramural funding for my research, in part because the environment here fosters and supports interacting with people from different research areas. My research bridging developmental biology and aging in the immune system was recognized with a Creative Research Medal in 2011. Every time I graduate a Ph.D. student who trained in my lab is a highlight for me. A major highlight also has been seeing the growth and maturation of the Developmental Biology Alliance, which I have chaired since coming to UGA. I am also very excited about my new role as director of the ILS graduate admission program.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
I really enjoy being able to integrate information and approaches from different sources and research areas in both my teaching and research. So it is common for something I run across in preparing for teaching to spark an idea in my research, and vice versa. Of course much of my teaching is through my research—I have trained many students at different levels who have worked in my lab on research projects.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
I try to convey the importance of learning how to ask questions and learn in a new field—the information you get from a course may be superseded as time goes by, but those skills will always be important and valuable.
Describe your ideal student.
Students who have a natural love of inquiry and the unknown and who are ambitious and motivated to learn are the most fun to teach, both in the classroom and in the lab. Being smart is important, but it is not the only important thing.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
This is going to sound geeky, but my favorite place on campus is in my lab! I spend so much time working in my office, writing, working on teaching and on administrative responsibilities—but the lab is where the action is.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
Go camping with my family, especially in the western U.S. But I don’t get as much time to do that as I would like.
Community/civic involvement includes….
I gave a public lecture in the Origins series last year. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but I really enjoyed talking to the public about science.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
This is a tough one! I am a voracious reader, mostly of fiction (science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, mysteries, thrillers…), and love all kinds of movies. No way can I pick a favorite.
Proudest moment at UGA?
Receiving the UGA Outstanding Graduate Mentor Award for the Physical and Life Sciences in 2013. Of all the awards I have received, this one meant the most, because my current and former students all got together to nominate me.
Originally published 11/2/14