Grant gives U bee prof big buzz

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2011 - 7:17 PM
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University of Minnesota Prof. Marla Spivak, who won a $500,000 MacArthur “genius’’ grant, broke ground by using a bee breeding approach to fight parasitic mites that can destroy hives. “I’m not a genius,” she said Tuesday. “If anything, I’m persistent.”

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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You could call Marla Spivak the queen bee. But she would hate that.

Sure, the University of Minnesota professor is one of the top bee researchers in the country. She was awarded a prestigious $500,000 MacArthur "genius" grant in September for that work. Since then, she's been sought as a speaker, interviewed by journalists across the country and featured in Wired magazine.

But enough about her. Spivak brings it back to bees.

"I want to use the attention wisely," she said by phone Tuesday. "I enjoy the speaking because it gives me a chance to promote the cause of bees. So that part is really rewarding."

This week, she'll speak three times. A Wednesday lecture at the U is open to the public.

Between, Spivak is busy advocating for a research and discovery center and working with seven graduate students on a host of bee-related subjects. Among them: why bees collect a resin called propolis inside their hives. They've discovered indications that the propolis helps the bees' immune systems.

Spivak is reserving a chunk of the grant -- which pays $100,000 a year for five years, no strings attached -- for graduate students.

Often, those researchers get paid through federal grants or teaching assistant positions at the U, but both are harder to come by these days.

"Budget cuts are extreme," she said. "I'm in a fortunate position where I will be able to pay for graduate students.

"That's what we do here. It's a top priority."

Interviews are less so, although she sees their importance. She laughs about one:

Spivak's proud mom alerted a reporter in Denver, where her family lives, to her daughter's MacArthur grant. The reporter got going on the "genius" question -- one that makes Spivak uncomfortable. She responded that her older brothers were the geniuses in the family.

That quote topped the story.

"My brothers were calling me up: 'My friends are giving me grief about being a genius.'"

"Yeah," she said, laughing. "Welcome to my world."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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