Syracuse University Magazine


Biology professor Melissa Pepling, whose lab studies female infertility, explains to biochemistry major Tess Cherlin '11 how to focus her sample on the laser scanning confocal microscope. Cherlin is examining a mouse ovary and the eggs, which are labeled with a fluorescent tag. Now, as a member of the Teach For America Corps, Cherlin shares her enthusiasm for science as a biology teacher in New Orleans.

Connecting Opportunities

Multidisciplinary project aims to heighten presence of women faculty in science-related fields

The chance meeting of marine biologist Susan Parks and mechanical engineer Melissa Green at a 2012 welcome gathering for new SU faculty led to an innovative collaboration that enriched and broadened research opportunities for both women. Parks, a biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, studies the relationship between ocean noise levels and stress on whales, but was hampered by the interference picked up by the underwater sound transmitters used to collect data. Green, an L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science (LCS) faculty member who is an expert in fluid dynamics, partnered with Parks’s research team to discover that a slight design adjustment to the transmitter could significantly improve the clarity of underwater recordings. Green then worked with the transmitter’s manufacturer to improve its product, making possible more precise results—not only for the SU-led biologists, but for all researchers doing underwater sound recording. 

The coming together of this cross-academic-and-industry team serves as a noteworthy example of the work of SU ADVANCE, a multidisciplinary project supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to ensure a greater presence of women faculty in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. As one of seven universities funded by the NSF’s 2010 ADVANCE-IT (Institutional Transformation) competition, SU received a five-year, $3.4 million grant for its project proposal, officially titled “Inclusive Connective Corridor: Social Networks and the ADVANCEment of Women STEM Faculty.” The SU proposal was developed through the collaborative efforts and devotion of senior STEM faculty and administrators, including those engaged in the Women in Science and Engineering professional development program (WiSE). 

To underscore the project’s commitment to institution-wide transformation, the University pledged support during the initial five years of the NSF grant and for five years beyond that. “The recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in these fields are critical priorities not only for higher education, but for the nation as a whole,” says Chancellor Nancy Cantor, the project’s principal investigator. “Changing the overwhelming underrepresentation of women across these areas will take deep and broad collaboration, so we have assembled an esteemed and experienced team of faculty to lead the charge in forging the expansive intellectual and social networks it will take to turn the tide.”

According to Marie Garland, executive director of SU ADVANCE, the project’s keystone is the belief that networks matter for career development—a concept upheld by a growing body of research. The project’s initiatives create opportunities for connections among faculty women and men in SU’s 12 STEM departments, linking them within a web of resource hubs. These hubs arise from collaborations, such as those that grew out of the connection between Parks and Green. “By building on successful partnerships, we’re creating a passageway of relationships, opportunities, and resources to unleash the power of unique talent,” Garland says. “This is about identifying opportunities for connecting with each other and recognizing the possibilities within those connections for igniting the spark of an emergent idea. Ultimately, it’s about seeing our networks as a mechanism for institutional transformation.”

Through the project’s four main initiatives, female STEM faculty members will become better connected to each other, to mentors, to research centers, and to campus resources, supporting their progress toward tenure and full professorship. Strengthening professional networks also enhances recruiting, another significant aspect of SU ADVANCE. Working directly with search committees helps ensure that candidate pools for faculty positions include increasing numbers of women, particularly women from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups and women with disabilities.

Another recruitment initiative, the Chancellor’s Faculty Fellowship, offers two-year positions with an emphasis on cultivating future faculty. Lashun King Thomas, the first person appointed to the fellowship, joined the LCS civil and environmental engineering department in 2011. “Being here has been a wonderful opportunity,” says Thomas, whose research focuses on understanding and alleviating the health risks of groundwater and soil contamination. “Having the support of the University and my department, as well as the help and advice of my colleagues, lets me feel like I’m a part of a real collaborative effort. I have all the resources I need to successfully immerse myself in the academic setting.”

In keeping with SU’s commitment to Scholarship in Action, SU ADVANCE creates opportunities for interdisciplinary, and academy-industry-community, research partnerships, ensuring that female faculty members connect with a broad range of possible collaborators. This aspect of the project includes opportunities for women faculty to meet with industry researchers, SU’s research center directors, and others. Additionally, SU ADVANCE strives to engage male faculty as partners and advocates. “Institutional transformation is the work of all faculty, and is sustained by policies and procedures that are supportive of equity and inclusion,” Garland says. “Involving everyone in the process is the key to change. It’s also a distinguishing feature of this project.”

The project is already having an impact, as evidenced by an increase in the number of female STEM faculty since 2010. “Women now account for 23.4 percent of faculty in SU’s 12 STEM departments, up from 20.7 percent before the grant started,” Garland says. Hiring numbers show an increase from two or three new female STEM faculty per year in the years just before SU ADVANCE began (2008-10) to six in 2011 and again in 2012. Additionally, the number of women who are full professors in STEM has increased by 25 percent, while reports reflect significant decreases in the number of women STEM faculty voluntarily leaving SU. “Still, continued progress requires a shift in our perspective as an institution—a change of mindset,” Garland says. “We’re thinking deeply about the culture of the University and asking how can we ensure that all faculty find a place where they know they are valued, included, and supported everyday.”  —Amy Speach

Leadership Team

The SU ADVANCE leadership team includes Kal Alston, senior vice president for human capital development; Shobha Bhatia, Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor of Teaching Excellence, civil and environmental engineering department, LCS; Pamela Brandes, management professor, Whitman School; Ines Mergel, public administration professor and social networking expert, Maxwell School, and the project’s scientific advisor; Karin Ruhlandt-Senge, Distinguished Professor and chair of the chemistry department, College of Arts and Sciences; and Jeffrey Stanton, professor and associate dean for research and doctoral programs, iSchool.