Confidence Builders


Last fall, the University of San Diego began an ambitious effort to increase the number of women faculty in science, and become a national model for undergraduate institutions striving to increase diversity. A year later, a cohort of eight women STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) professors has firmly taken root on campus.

A collaborative spirit, plans for innovative new courses and research, and a club to promote women in STEM are just a few signs of the group’s cohesion.

“They’re very committed to bringing ideas and change to the university,” says Biology Professor Lisa Baird, one of the leaders of the initiative. While each of them would have surely had great success on her own, working together has made their impact even greater. “They were clearly identified as a cohort; they have worked together that way and that has been a unique and very special piece of the effort,” says Baird.

With women comprising only 25 percent of full-time professors in science and engineering and women of color less than 6 percent (according to the National Science Foundation), USD undertook a novel approach to increase the participation and advancementof women faculty in the STEM and social science fields.

Supported by a five-year, $600,000 NSF grant, the university created a program dubbed Advancement of Female Faculty: Institutional climate, Recruitment and Mentoring (AFFIRM).

“Women, especially those of color, are underrepresented in the STEM disciplines nationally. Here at USD, we are committed to creating a new norm,” says Andrew T. Allen, university vice president and provost.

The goal was to hire a cohort that was committed to working together and increasing the number of STEM students from underrepresented groups. In hiring the eight professors, USD used innovative recruiting tools to make sure that the university was attracting a diverse pool of applicants. “The results were impressive,” Allen recalls. “While the university originally planned to hire two additional STEM faculty in 2014, the pool of applicants was so outstanding, we decided to hire these eight women.”

“Having other STEM faculty in their first year with me has been invaluable as a support system,” says Jennifer Prairie, assistant professor of environmental and ocean sciences.

“As we are all working on developing classes, setting up labs, applying for grants, and working with students, it is
very useful to have colleagues to bounce ideas off of.”

Bonding through their daily interactions, along with monthly potluck brunches, the new professors have come up with a number of new plans and ideas.

For example, Prairie and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Amanda Ruiz are planning to co-teach a class in the 2016-17 school year on mathematics modeling for marine biology. Students might learn how to model the movement of an organism around the ocean or how it interacts with other organisms. Prairie and Ruiz have also started a club for female STEM students to organize and network.

Another cohort member, Jessica Bell, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has created a rigorous biophysical chemistry course and has also had a paper accepted by the prestigious Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Odesma Dalrymple, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering, is the faculty advisor for the Society of Women Engineers at USD. This summer, Dalrymple helped lead a STEAM (STEM + Arts) Summer Academy focused on hands-on learning and holistic academic enrichment.

Members of the cohort have also been busy filling up their research labs with students and applying for research grants.

While working together has been key, one of the most important reasons for success, says Ruiz, is the perception that their activities to increase diversity and broaden participation in STEM fields are a meaningful and important
part of the tenure process at USD. “I definitely recommend [this type of initiative] for other universities. This is a really good approach.”

“These new members of our faculty have demonstrated a commitment to interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and to mentoring a diverse student population in addition to their own scholarship,” adds Allen. We’re so excited to have them here.” — by Liz Harman

Pictured: From left to right are new USD professors Joan Schellinger, Jessica Bell, Jennifer Prairie, Molly Burke, Divya Sitaraman, Amanda Ruiz, Odesma Dalrymple and Imane Khalil. Photograph by Nick Abadilla.