Our Team

Jo Handelsman, Founder

Jo HandelsmanJo stands out as a changemaker, visionary, and maverick in science and education. Her research focuses on studying the diversity of microbes in soil as well as microbial communities and interactions in soil and insect gut. She was one of the pioneers of metagenomics, a functional approach to studying the genetic diversity of unculturable bacteria in environmental samples. In addition, she is known internationally for her efforts to improve science education and participation of women and minorities in science. In 2012 while at Yale University, she created the Small World Initiative (SWI) with the goal of strengthening STEM education, addressing the antibiotic crisis, and sharing her passion for soil microbes. Jo initially introduced the concept of SWI through an undergraduate course titled “From Microbes to Molecules.” Her vision transformed the six-student introductory biology course into the international collaboration the program has become today.

Jo assumed the role of Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in February 2017, where she was honored recently as a Vilas Research Professor. In her previous role, she served at the White House as the Associate Director for Science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in June of 2014. Prior to joining OSTP, she was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and Frederick Phineas Rose Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology at Yale University. She received her Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984, and she served on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1985 until moving to Yale in 2010. Jo’s leadership has led to her appointment as the first President of the Rosalind Franklin Society; her appointment as President of the American Society for Microbiology in 2013; her service on the National Academies’ panel that wrote the 2006 report, “Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering;” her role as co-chair of the PCAST working group that developed the 2012 report, “Engage to Excel,” which contained recommendations to the President to strengthen STEM education to meet the workforce needs of the next decade in the United States; and her selection by President Obama to receive the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring.

Sam Rikkers, Executive Director

Sam RikkersSam leads and manages the Small World Initiative’s (SWI) direction, goals, fundraising activities and team. Before joining SWI, he launched and led Georgetown University McDonough School of Business’ Rural Opportunity Initiative. Prior to this position, President Obama appointed Sam to serve as Administrator of USDA’s Rural Business-Cooperative Service. Before joining the USDA, Sam served as Director of the Energy and Environment Team with the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office. Prior to this position, Sam served as Regional Field Director in Wisconsin on President Obama’s re-election campaign. From 2007 to 2012, he was an attorney with a commercial litigation firm in New York City specializing in antitrust and First Amendment law. Before practicing law, Sam spent years working as a community and political organizer nationally and internationally. He earned a J.D. from the University of Wisconsin, a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. He also served as a volunteer with the US Peace Corps in rural Zambia. Sam is from a small town in Southern Wisconsin.

Nicole Broderick, Science and Training Director

Nichole BroderickNichole is an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut’s Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. Previously, Nichole was an Associate Research Scientist in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology Department at Yale University and had been supervising the Handelsman Lab research group. Nichole piloted SWI’s introductory biology course Microbes to Molecules at Yale University. Nichole received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Jo Handelsman (Microbiology) and Kenneth Raffa (Entomology) and did her postdoctoral research in the lab of Bruno Lemaitre at the EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her research has focused on gut microbiota and their impact on host physiology and susceptibility to disease.

Erika Kurt, Director of Outreach and Strategic Partnerships

Erika KurtAs Director of Outreach and Strategic Partnerships for the Small World Initiative, Erika continues her longstanding commitment to tackling pressing global health challenges. Drawing on her experience from the public and private sectors, she brings her expertise harnessing collaborative action to achieve measurable results and background in science, education, law, and impact investing. As a Strategist for LGT Venture Philanthropy, Erika developed a framework to increase the impact of investment strategies on educational and health outcomes. Erika graduated from Vassar College and earned two law degrees from McGill University.


Debra Davis, Training Committee Chair

Debra Davis“Having taught SWI labs in Microbiology for Biology and Allied Health majors and in a specially developed non-science majors course, I have seen first hand the changes created by such an invaluable experience. The attitudes of students towards laboratory classes, science as a whole, and microbiology were transformed. In addition, the perception of my colleagues on the ability and drive that non-majors possess towards science were revitalized. Non-science majors students have changed their majors or taken more science related courses due to their experience with SWI. Biology majors and Allied Health science majors come to lab classes excited and have sought out other research experiences to enhance their academic experiences. My colleagues have also incorporated new laboratory experiences in their own courses as a result.”

Debra Davis is an Assistant Professor at Wingate University, North Carolina. She is a microbial ecologist, specializing in wetland sediment microbial populations. She has been a SWI Partner Instructor since 2014 and has adapted SWI in several courses for Allied Health, Biology/Environmental Biology, and non-science majors.

Hans Wildschutte, Science Committee Co-Chair

Hans WildeschutteHans Wildschutte is an Assistant Professor at Bowling Green State University. He brings experience in adapting molecular approaches for use in environmental bacteria. As a research active member of a large undergraduate university, he teaches Introduction to Microbiology to sophomores and juniors using the Small World Initiative platform. Hans has implemented a molecular strategy for SWI to identify gene clusters encoding antagonistic factors in natural bacteria. This approach is designed to facilitate the discovery of antibiotics. Hans has a Ph.D. in Molecular Virology and Microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh. His postdoctoral training was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Kristen Butela, Science Committee Co-Chair

Kristen ButelaDr. Kristen Butela, Associate Professor of Biology at Seton Hill University, teaches courses in microbiology and often gives students the opportunity to conduct research with her. She enjoys educating her students through hands-on research because of “the excitement behind not being able to determine what is going to happen in the lab from one day to the next. The student and teacher are in the same boat; we equalize each other.”   

Paula Soneral, Publication Committee Chair

Paula SoneralPaula is an Associate Professor of Biology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. As a faculty member at a private liberal arts college, she brings expertise in mentoring undergraduate students toward increased self-efficacy in STEM. She believes the Small World Initiative curriculum is an excellent tool for helping freshman and sophomore students engage in the practice of science, build confidence, and make a positive impact on global health. Paula received a bachelors degree in Cellular and Molecular Biology with high honors from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology from Stanford University School of Medicine.

Mustafa Morsy, Symposium Committee Chair

Mustafa MorsyMustafa Morsy is an Associate Professor at the University of West Alabama (UWA). He earned his PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Arkansas. He joined the University of Nevada, Reno and then the Samuel Robert Noble Foundation as a postdoctoral fellow from 2005 to 2011. In fall 2011, he joined UWA as a full-time faculty in the Department of Biology. The Morsy lab research at UWA focused on the discovery of novel endophytes that can be used to improve crop productivity, under normal and stress conditions. In addition, Morsy is committed to encouraging undergraduate involvement in research via development of research-based curriculum and laboratory-intensive environment for talented and dedicated students. As a result, he became a SWI Pilot Partner in 2013.

The SWI course has been a rewarding experience for him and his freshmen students. For example, one of the students, Fhallon Ware-Gilmore, described her experience with the SWI course by saying, “I was able to learn something new, to hone my problem-solving skills, and to challenge myself in new ways…I believe as a freshman this was an experience of a lifetime.” Another student, Mara Deluca, described her experience in presenting at the SWI symposium as, “The American Society of Microbiology in Boston was an experience I will cherish throughout my college career…In attending the meeting, I learned many things. One in particular was the multitude of pathways a biology major can go.”

Preston Garcia, Social Media/PR Committee Chair

Preston GarciaPreston is an Associate Professor of Biology and the Biology program coordinator at Castleton University in Castleton, Vermont. As a microbiologist, he has always been concerned about the growing epidemic of antibiotic resistance, which is what led him to the Small World Initiative. He also has a strong interest in STEM retention, especially among first-generation college students, who are the majority of students at Castleton. SWI provides the perfect combination to address both of these concerns. After attending training at UConn this summer, he is teaching a full SWI curriculum for the first time this spring for freshman science majors. He is looking forward to leading the Social Media/PR Committee by using all forms of social media to continue to spread the word about SWI.

Preston received his bachelor’s degree in Biology at James Madison University and his Masters and Ph.D. in Microbiology from the University of Connecticut. He completed his Postdoctoral work as an Infectious Disease fellow at the University of Virginia Medical School.