Buzz about U professor is 'genius’

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2010 - 8:36 PM

A University of Minnesota bee researcher gets a big surprise: a MacArthur "genius" grant.

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University of Minnesota Prof. Marla Spivak, who won a $500,000 MacArthur “genius’’ grant on Tuesday, 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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Marla Spivak never wanted to be a professor.

She simply wanted to be with bees. So, she worked as a beekeeper in various countries with different mentors, "doing everything to stay away from university life."

But she envied researchers' ability to question the bees.

"To pose a question, set up an experiment and have them answer you," Spivak said, her eyes still wide with the thought. "Sometimes they start revealing secrets, telling you new stories."

The stories she's heard as a professor at the University of Minnesota have helped bees better protect themselves from an onslaught of threats. This week, that earned her a prestigious, $500,000 MacArthur "genius" grant.

The grants, announced Tuesday, provide 23 researchers, artists and innovators $100,000 a year for five years, no strings attached.

Spivak's reaction? First, disbelief. "Why me? What am I doing that's different?" Next, jubilation. Then dread, she said, laughing. Now, she's dreaming of how that money might launch some "big, unusual" projects to help both bees and their keepers.

Her time as a professor has been described with similar adjectives. Colleagues and students call her research "innovative," "inventive" and even "out-there."

"I've never played the game straight," said the 55-year-old St. Paul resident. "I've always colored outside the lines."

New ways of thinking

When she was 18, Spivak read a naturalist book about beekeeping. She was fascinated.

She began working for a commercial beekeeper in New Mexico in 1975, later earning her bachelor's degree in biology from Humboldt State University. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas, spending two years researching Africanized and European honey bees in Costa Rica.

When she came to the University of Minnesota in 1993, Bill Hutchison, now head of the Entomology Department, was struck by her "new ways of thinking about honeybes."

At that time, beekeepers would deal with the growing problem of parasitic mites by applying pesticides. In contrast, Spivak wanted to breed bees that were resistant to the mites, he said.

"It was really a novel approach," Hutchison said. "As far as I know, she was the first person in the world to take that approach, and it worked. That catapulted her reputation, I think, worldwide."

Tiny mites, including the Varroa mite, can decimate hives. Spivak knew that certain bees would detect pupae with mites on them and throw them out. So she bred queens with that characteristic, calling them "Minnesota Hygienic."

Now, she helps beekeepers continue that selection.

Her workshops and constant "troubleshooting" with those beekeepers was noted by the MacArthur Foundation: "By translating her scientific finding into accessible presentations, publications, and workshops, she is leading beekeepers throughout the United States to establish local breeding programs that increase the frequency of hygienic traits in the general bee population."

'Colonies have personalities'

Lately, Spivak and her students have been studying resin, which bees collect, take back to the hive and use to seal cracks and gaps of their tree cavities. The resin -- called propolis once it gets to the colony -- helps the bees' immune systems, they've discovered.

But there are "a million more" questions to ask about resin, she said, and the small percentage of bees that collect it.

"Who are the bees who collect these resins?" she said. "It's difficult and unrewarding work. So why do it? Why not just secrete wax?"

Mike Simone-Finstrom has studied resin's role as a Ph.D. student, writing grants with and learning from Spivak.

Her nontraditional path to academia "has shaped her perspective," he said. She's not afraid to ask big questions, of the bees or of other researchers, he said. For example, she sent him to another research lab to learn new techniques.

"She's trying to evolve the program," Simone-Finstrom said. "She's not trying to do what's always been done."

The bees Spivak and her students work with are in an unmarked, wooded lot on the edge of the St. Paul campus. She unstuck the top of one of dozens of pastel-colored wooden boxes Tuesday, showing the bees gathered inside.

They were rowdy and buzzed around her.

"Bee colonies have personalities just like people," she explained, "and this one is having a bad day."

The bees got more aggressive, and several stung her, which is unusual.

"That'll put me in my place, huh?" she said, removing a stinger.

The $500,000 MacArthur grants are known as the "genius" grants, a term the MacArthur Foundation shies from. Spivak is no fan of it, either.

"I'm not a genius," she said. "If anything, I'm persistent. Maybe dumbly persistent. I just keep working on certain hunches."

An experiment that doesn't pan out won't doom a hunch, she said.

"Then I just ask the question another way."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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    Age: 55

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    When she's not around bees: She might be gardening. Or practicing aikido. She's a second-degree black-belt.

    Family: She has a son, a graduate student studying cognitive neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley.

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