Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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Grant Aims to Aid U.Va. in Promoting Women in the Sciences and Engineering

Pamela Norris joined the faculty of the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science in 1994. Since then Norris, the Frederick Tracy Morse Professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, has founded and currently directs the Microscale Heat Transfer Laboratory and the Aerogel Research Laboratory. She was promoted to full professor in 2004 and has enjoyed many successes and awards.

The University aims to cultivate more female scientists like her with a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE Institutional Transformation program. The purpose of the program, created about 10 years ago, is to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science, technology, engineering and math careers – the so-called “STEM” fields. The grant program also includes behavioral and social sciences and economics – referred to as “SBE” – fields in which women also are underrepresented.

Research cited on the NSF grant website shows that women’s representation and advancement in those fields are affected by many external factors unrelated to their ability, interests and technical skills. Nationally and at U.Va., women still lag behind men in terms of graduate enrollments and degrees conferred in the STEM fields.

The NSF program encourages female and male faculty, department chairs and institutional leaders to work together to identify and ameliorate the often hidden structural and cultural barriers to women’s full participation in academic STEM and SBE careers.

It’s not simply a matter of numbers, said Gertrude Fraser, U.Va.’s vice provost for faculty recruitment & retention and the principal investigator on the grant. A successful academic career involves both individual experience and working as part of an organization.

Fraser and the group that submitted the successful proposal, “Structured Conversations and Re-imagined Spaces: Effecting Systemic Change for Women in STEM at UVA,” will implement a suite of programs, with the help of other faculty participants. Along with Fraser and Norris, the implementation team comprises Joanne Cohoon, associate professor in the Engineering School’s Department of Engineering and Society; and Sophie Trawalter, assistant professor of public policy and psychology in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy; as well as senior personnel Dorothe Bach, associate professor and assistant director at the Teaching Resource Center; Archie L. Holmes Jr., professor of electrical and computer engineering; Sharon Hostler, senior associate dean in the School of Medicine and vice provost of faculty development; Dinko Počanić, professor of physics in the College of Arts & Sciences; and Mary Lou Soffa, professor of computer science in the Engineering School.

The grant is based on a balanced view, recognizing that U.Va.’s efforts thus far give it the capacity for transforming the policies, climate and resources needed to help women thrive in their academic lives, Fraser said. “This is strategically important,” she said.

“Each institution has to show it will innovate around issues that it wants to address. It has to be transformational,” she said. “Otherwise, NSF would not have funded us.”

John D. Simon, executive vice president and provost, said that, as a chemist, his work in the lab is enhanced by the presence of women and men from diverse backgrounds. “In order for America to advance in scientific research and technology, everyone has to be at the table,” he said. “This grant will help U.Va. lead the way in creating environments that encourage the best and brightest women to enter and remain in these critically important fields.”

She mentioned that the support of deans of the College of Arts & Sciences, Curry School of Education and the Engineering and Batten schools contributed to the proposal’s success. Engineering Dean James Aylor has committed space to house the ADVANCE offices.

Fraser said the NSF added the social sciences when the grantors realized those disciplines were integral in addressing research questions involving the climate, identifying which factors discourage women from pursuing STEM fields and testing strategies to empower women faculty.

“U.Va. will focus on areas where we think there are opportunities to develop our capacity to create a supportive environment for women across the board,” she said. “That environment will be good for men, too, and for everyone’s research and teaching. This involves assessing and making changes in some ways, identifying what’s working and amplifying areas of strength.”

Over the last decade, U.Va. has redoubled its efforts to increase female representation in STEM disciplines, particularly at the doctoral level, through outreach and mentoring efforts and through the Commission on the Future of the University’s focus on expanding support for graduate students.

U.Va. ADVANCE has five initiatives to meet the program’s goals: to recruit, retain and promote women in science and engineering academic careers by transforming institutional practices and creating a supportive and inclusive climate. The initiatives are:

  • “Departmental Diversity and Action Transformation” is designed to strengthen and support departmental efforts to create a positive environment that maximizes focus, creativity and career advancement for all faculty, with an emphasis on women. Departmental grants, workshops and equity consultants will be available to achieve these goals.
  • “Reimagined Spaces – Voices and Visibility” aims to increase the positive visibility and sense of belonging of STEM and SBE women in the social and physical environment across Grounds, via conferences, on-Grounds research and an oral history project to document the history of women pioneers, as well as the experiences of the current generations.
  • “The U.Va. ADVANCE Tournament of Ideas” will stimulate the development of unique approaches to transforming structures, cultures, individual or group behavior, policies or practices that would enable U.Va. and other universities to be more effective in reaching, recruiting and nurturing the talent pool of women in STEM.
  • “Recruitment, Search and Selection” will offer small grants to departments and will support the development of an interactive online tool for faculty search committees to strengthen search, selection and hiring efforts at U.Va., with a strong focus on increasing the number of underrepresented minority female candidates and those hired.
  • An “ADVANCE Enhancement Fellows” program will provide small grants to support STEM women’s research and scholarship. Faculty from underrepresented groups and mid-career faculty seeking promotion will be strongly encouraged to apply. These grants will be available to senior women as well.

The mission statement that will be posted on the U.Va. ADVANCE website, scheduled to go live Oct. 30, describes the following goals:

“At the University of Virginia, we endeavor to provide an excellent education, create new knowledge, encourage innovation and promote a culture of integrity and equity. The NSF ADVANCE grant, and the programs that will come out of it, are an investment in our future. They provide opportunity and means for all members of our community to participate in realigning our current culture and demographics with our most deeply held ideals and values. With women’s increased Ph.D. attainment in STEM-SBE fields, hiring the highest quality faculty requires that we broaden our networks to attract the best. Both our fundamental commitment to fairness and equity, as well as academic rigor, require that we develop and retain our increasingly diverse faculty. We can only be at our best through the creative problem solving that comes with diverse groups of thinkers. Broadening the participation of women in STEM-SBE fields will strengthen the University’s ability to compete in the increasingly global environment of higher education. U.Va. ADVANCE will better enable us to achieve our aspirations as an inclusive institution, to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their gender, have the opportunity to excel.”

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