A reproductive biologist's second act

MaryAnn Handel

Mary Ann Handel’s peers recognize her career of science and service.

In 2003, Mary Ann Handel, Ph.D.Investigates the genetic regulation of meiosis and the mechanisms of male fertility to understand how errors in meiosis can lead to developmental abnormalities.Mary Ann Handel, Ph.D. , may have retired after 30 years on the faculty of the University of Tennessee. But she wasn’t done with science or service to her research community.

That year the reproductive biologist came to The Jackson Laboratory (JAX) in Bar Harbor, Maine, to explore the genetic regulation of sperm formation. “Instead of engaging in a life of leisure watching birds and playing in her garden,” says JAX Professor Emeritus John Eppig, Ph.D., Handel’s longtime friend and colleague, “she made a gutsy move” to pursue her research interests.



“She was completely immersed in both science and service throughout both of these careers,” Eppig notes. “Mary Ann is a model scientist who not only has an outstanding record of research, but is an inspirational cornerstone of the field of reproductive biology and its institutions.”

Not long after setting up her JAX lab, Handel took on a host of teaching and mentoring roles, becoming an adjunct professor on the graduate faculty at the University of Maine. She took on the director’s role for a special collaboration known as the “JAX Track,” which enables predoctoral students in mammalian genetics to rotate between JAX and the Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. For five years she served on the faculty of the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory’s Frontiers in Reproduction group.

Her decades of service to the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) include mentoring trainees, serving (with Eppig) as co-editor in chief of the SSR’s journal, Biology of Reproduction, and organizing scientific conferences in reproductive and developmental sciences. The SSR has awarded her the 2018 Jansen Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes “an individual who has demonstrated unselfish service and leadership in advancing the discipline of reproductive biology.”

In learning of the award, Handel says, “It is an honor to serve with my colleagues in the Society for the Study of Reproduction to strengthen our research community and awareness of the importance of reproductive health in overall well-being.”

Fellow JAX reproductive biologist Robert E. Braun, Ph.D.Conducts research to better understand the mechanisms that regulate germline stem cell fate.Robert E. Braun, Ph.D. , professor of mammalian genetics, senior scientific advisor to the president and Janeway Distinguished Chair, comments, “Mary Ann is highly deserving of the Jansen Distinguished Service Award. She tirelessly promotes the study of reproductive biology through her many leadership roles within the SSR, the mentoring of students, postdoctoral fellows and young faculty, and her outstanding original research on meiosis.” 

The friendly, outgoing Handel continues to relish her roles as a scientist, mentor and “glue” of the JAX research community. She and her husband, Steve, throw an annual New Year’s Day brunch, packing their charming woodland house with dozens of friends and colleagues who bring their own coffee mugs and leave their snow-covered boots in the mud-room.

Located less than a mile from the border of scenic Acadia National Park, the nature-loving Handels lure birds and other wildlife with feeders and birdhouses all over their front and back yards.

For her early-bird neighbors, Handel is a familiar sight on her every-morning, any-weather walk. In the rural outskirts of Bar Harbor, that means pitch-dark winter mornings with a flashlight; in midsummer, when dawn breaks before 3:00 a.m., she’s wearing sunglasses. Most of the year a set of birder’s binoculars hangs around her neck.

“Mary Ann has found her nirvana here,” says Eppig. “She has also brought her traits of perseverance, integrity, intelligence, diplomacy and selflessness to the service of JAX and the Society for the Study of Reproduction. She is a wonderful friend and colleague."