A Mentor in Life and Science

In and out of the lab, Professor Emerita Jeanne S. Poindexter inspired generations of women scientists

By Merri Rosenberg ’78

Portrait of Jeanne S. Poindexter
Photo by Doug Eveleigh

Jeanne S. Poindexter, who died in July at the age of 83, was an accomplished microbiologist, teacher, and research scientist. As a member of the Biological Sciences Department from 1991 to 2007, Poindexter’s influence extended well beyond the lab and lecture hall.

“She taught me how to juggle a career in academics and a family, recognizing our own limitations and making sure to commit ourselves to our passions,” said Talia Swartz ’00, associate director of the Medical Scientist Training Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

As her daughters, Carla Poindexter White and Portia J. Poindexter ’92, observed, fostering that kind of confidence in her students was critical to their mother: “After years of fighting sex bias in the academic and scientific worlds, [she] leapt at the opportunity to join Barnard College — not only for the supportive work environment she knew she would have, but to inspire young women to be confident in themselves intellectually, to set high standards for themselves, to be excited about learning, and to know that women can have a meaningful career and a family if that’s what they chose.”

It came as no surprise when Poindexter’s teaching talents were recognized with the student-nominated Emily Gregory Teaching Award at Barnard in 1999. “She taught so much more than microbiology and lab techniques,” said Dana Lau ’94. “She took on every task, whether it was the preparation of a lesson plan, design of new experiment, or repair of broken lab equipment, with determination, thoroughness, and absolute joy.”

One of Poindexter’s favorite moments was when she was honored at the 2014 Alumnae of Color Dinner for her support of students of color at Barnard.

“Whether the lens was one of a microscope to study her personal cache of Caulobacter bacteria or the lens was from the balcony of her Mitchell-Lama apartment to watch the Independence Day fireworks over the river, she opened how I view the world,” said Dr. Wilnise Jasmin ’05, medical director of behavioral health at the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Emmanuelle St. Jean ’04 expressed a similar sentiment in her remarks at the 2014 Alumnae of Color event: “You helped me to be a scientist in all that I do — question things, analyze them, and let the data guide me. What I learned from you has made me a better health policy analyst and a better baker. I will forever be indebted to you for your patience, quality time, and honesty.”

Born in LaMoine, Ill., and raised mostly in New Castle, Ind., Poindexter earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. Before Barnard, she worked as a research scientist or professor at a number of institutions, including Indiana University, New York University, Medgar Evers College, and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. Poindexter conducted pioneering research on the stalked bacterium Caulobacter crescentus and published important scientific studies on specific microbial organisms.

Poindexter was widely recognized for her work as a scientist, garnering numerous accolades. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses named a bacterial virus after her — the Poindextervirus — in 2020. She was honored as a “Woman of Distinction” by the New York State Senate in 2012 for her contributions in preserving affordable housing in New York.

She is survived by her husband, Porter J. Poindexter, three daughters and their husbands, two grandsons, and other family members.

To contribute to the Barnard College Jeanne S. Poindexter Memorial Fund, donate at giving.barnard.edu (include “Jeanne Poindexter” as the “relationship to Barnard”) or send a check attn: Lisa Yeh, Barnard College, 3009 Broadway, New York, NY 10027, with “Jeanne Poindexter” on the memo line.

Latest IssueSpring 2023