Faculty Spotlight

Professor Jennifer Roecklein-Canfield Selected as a 2024 Fellow of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Jennifer Roecklein-Canfield
Photograph by Ashley Purvis

“I wanted to serve as an example of how women can succeed in the sciences. It became my mission and passion to promote undergraduate women in STEM.”

“It is humbling to be recognized for my science and my contribution to the field by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB),” says Professor of Chemistry and Physics Jennifer Roecklein-Canfield, upon receiving news of her ASBMB fellowship. “This was not just a personal acknowledgment, but one for Simmons as well.”

Colleagues Victoria Del Gaizo Moore (Elon University) and Michael Wolyniak (Hampden-Sydney College) jointly nominated Roecklein–Canfield for this fellowship. As they wrote in their nomination letter: “Dr. Canfield’s career can only be described as one of selfless dedication to the betterment of those around her with a special emphasis on providing opportunities for girls and women to excel in STEM fields.”

Being an ASBMB Fellow testifies to Roecklein-Canfield’s substantial body of research, steadfast service to the Society, and commitment to the curricular development of her field, as well as her dedication to providing opportunities for girls and women to excel in STEM fields. An award ceremony recognizing the 2024 Fellows was held on March 23 in San Antonio, Texas.

Advancing Science

“As Fellows, we support the main mission of the ASBMB, which is to advance the science of biochemistry and molecular biology,” Roecklein-Canfield explains. The ASBMB publishes several scientific and educational research journals — including The Journal of Biochemistry and the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education Journal — engages in policy work, and curates career development events and mentorship activities for students and junior scientists.

In her years of service to the ASBMB, Roecklein-Canfield remains committed to inclusion. “I served on the Women in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology subcommittee, where we worked on moving the needle on recruiting and retaining women in STEM. And over the last decade, much of my research has constituted Discipline-based Education Research (DBER). In this capacity, I work to improve biochemistry education at the undergraduate level and educate the next generation of scientists,” she says.

Roecklein-Canfield is a molecular biologist who studies virus. “In my lab, I employ a systems approach to studying the mechanisms of viral-host interactions and use Synthetic Biology principles to create novel DNA devices used to introduce new functions into cells. This extends to understanding viral genomic structure. I also study bacteriophage, which is another type of virus,” she explains.

Mentoring Women in STEM

At Simmons, one of Roecklein-Canfield’s first interventions was a mentoring program called Building Your Science Toolkit. “This program, which I developed with Professor and Chair of the Chemistry and Physics Department Rich Gurney, not only introduced undergraduate women to research but also involved a tiered mentoring process in which juniors and seniors would mentor first-year students. And now, Simmons’ recent grant from NASA codifies the mentorship of underrepresented students through the Dynamic Research Education Academy for Mentoring Women in STEM (DREAM-WSTEM) program.”

As a pioneering woman in STEM who lacked supportive mentors, Roecklein-Canfield recognizes that “early mentoring and peer mentoring have a tremendous effect on keeping students in their major and instilling in them a sense of belonging.”

Building Your Science Toolkit also highlights the value of peer mentoring: “When a senior helps a first-year student and says, ‘look this is what you have to do get the next job,’ I think it is much more believable for the mentee,” says Roecklein-Canfield, who knew that Simmons was the ideal environment for this program.

With her Simmons colleagues, Roecklein-Canfield has curated in-depth research experiences for STEM majors within a women’s-centered environment. Approximately 12 years ago, she helped redesign the chemistry curriculum, a project called the Laboratory Renaissance, funded by the W.M. Keck Foundation. “We essentially transformed a lot of our cookie-cutter lab courses [i.e., easy-to-follow instructions with controlled outcomes, which leave little room for exploration and critical thinking] into research-integrated courses. Within this model, even first-year students are introduced to research opportunities early on, and this helps them obtain internships before graduation and perform well at conferences,” she explains.

Studies conducted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) show that early access to research is critical to retaining students in STEM majors and professions, and particularly for underrepresented students,” says Roecklein-Canfield. For this reason, she secured funding for The Simmons University Research Experience for Undergraduates (Simmons-REU), a 10-week summer research program. “This program is a testament to how we mentor and support our students at Simmons,” she says. “I consider this project the pinnacle of my career. . . . I want the world to know that at Simmons we do great science and we provide our students with rigorous research and professional development experiences, which are now recognized by the NSF.”

Finding Fulfillment

For Roecklein-Canfield, becoming a scientist paved a path to a better life. “I am a first-generation college student who was raised by a single mother,” she says. “Education was my route out of poverty.”

Before coming to Simmons, Roecklein-Canfield witnessed patriarchal oppression within the sciences. “Negative mentoring [in high school and college] left a profound impression on me,” she says. “I decided that I was not going to be that kind of person when I became a scientist. Instead, my goal was for everyone to have a seat at the table.”

Joining the Simmons faculty in 1999, Roecklein-Canfield “wanted to serve as an example of how women can succeed in the sciences. It became my mission and passion to promote undergraduate women in STEM,” she says. Since then, she has helped place over 100 women in the STEM field. “They are out there, getting PhDs and MDs, and becoming advocates. I would like to think that I had some small part in their success,” she says.

Beyond mentoring Simmons students, Roecklein-Canfield serves on the Massachusetts Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. As she explains, “This Council promotes STEM education in the Commonwealth and equal access to it. I do this advocacy work at the state level to make sure that funding exists for internships, science fellowships, and scholarships to keep these students in STEM, and I also ensure that K-12 students have access to STEM education. The Council’s underlying motive is to create a sustainable STEM workforce within Massachusetts, and there are numerous career opportunities here in STEM-related fields,” she says.

Roecklein-Canfield advises aspiring scientists to establish relationships with good mentors. “Find people who believe in you and will advocate for you.” Moreover, she encourages students to reject self-doubt. “Identity-based barriers are especially prevalent for women and minorities in STEM. But realize that these barriers are socially constructed. Try to develop self-confidence and practice self-advocacy. If you have a strong sense of self, you will excel.”

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Kathryn Dickason