Changing the Odds

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Prof. Alison Flatau (Department of Aerospace Engineering)

Using the nervous system of the eel-like lamprey fish, Professor Avis Cohen (Department of Biology and Institute for Systems Research) is developing a prosthetic device that could enable people with spinal cord injuries to walk again. Professor Alison Flatau (Department of Aerospace Engineering) has developed actuator and sensor technologies for aerospace systems that have improved the experience of flight. Professor Eugenia Kalnay (Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science) has pioneered both the fundamental science and the practical applications of numerical weather prediction and is leading research to predict climate change through atmospheric modeling.

These three University of Maryland professors are remarkable not only for their research achievements, but also for the fact that they have defied odds and risen to the highest academic rank at a major research university. Despite the fact that women now earn 40 percent of all science and engineering doctoral degrees, female scientists and engineers make up only about 17 percent of all full professors at research universities nationwide (see and remain underrepresented at all levels of academia.

More on ADVANCE:

The ADVANCE program will transform academic environments and promote the professional growth of women faculty members through initiatives including:

  • ADVANCE Professors--Accomplished women faculty in leadership positions within their college will be recruited to act as role models and mentors for their more junior colleagues.
  • Senior STEM Women's Council--Ten women from major national research foundations or policymaking bodies will be invited to attend biannual workshops aimed at providing mentorship, establishing social networks, and aggressively promoting qualified women faculty to positions on science advisory boards, editorial boards, and policy positions.
  • Dashboard--This project will establish an online resource in each college that provides information about career accomplishments and advancement so that all faculty members can gauge how they compare to their peers. It will be used in collaboration with department chairs and ADVANCE Professors for career benchmarking and advancement.
  • Peer-Learning Communities--Three communities will be established, bringing together 1) Assistant Professors; discussing tenure, publication, supervision of research projects, and early career teaching issues; 2) Associate Professors; focusing on preparing for promotion to Professor; and 3) Aspiring/current PIs.
  • Balance of Work and Family Initiatives--The Provost's Office will work with Deans, Associate Deans and ADVANCE Professors to train department chairs on the application of new benefits, including the opportunity for faculty to shift to a part-time appointment due to childrearing responsibilities.
  • Interdisciplinary Seed Grants--Individual grants, in the amount of $20,000, will be awarded annually in all colleges to women faculty members proposing projects with a strong emphasis on interdisciplinary research.

A new University of Maryland program funded by the National Science Foundation hopes to change that. The five-year, $3.2 million ADVANCE Program for Inclusive Excellence seeks to increase the representation of women faculty members in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields at the university. Building on the university’s achievements in inclusiveness and equity, the ADVANCE program will implement interconnected strategies designed to transform academic environments and promote the professional growth of women faculty in STEM.

With an additional investment of funds pledged by the university's deans and vice president for research, the impact of the NSF grant will be broadened beyond the STEM disciplines to transform the culture of the entire University of Maryland campus. The program will provide new mentorship and funding opportunities for women faculty members in all disciplines, create greater transparency about how career advancement decisions are made, increase the awareness and use of benefits designed to help faculty members balance work and family lives, and address the underrepresentation of women of color and their specific professional growth concerns.

"We are poised on the edge of a great transformative period in the history of the University of Maryland. The ADVANCE grant is designed to act as a catalyst for this transformation," says Nariman Farvardin, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, who is also the principal investigator on the grant. "We are committed to fostering the long-term professional growth of our women faculty members by investing in a culture of inclusiveness campus-wide."

Farvardin is joined by co-investigators Avis Cohen; professor, Department of Biology and Institute for Systems Research; Darryll Pines, dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering; and Kerry Ann O'Meara, associate professor of higher education, Department of Education Leadership, Higher Education and International Education, on this project. Cohen will direct the project, Pines will serve as the liaison with university deans and help establish a Senior STEM Women’s Council, and O'Meara, who is the author of the conceptual framework on professional growth and research guiding the project, will lead the effort to assess the impact of the program on the University of Maryland campus.

"Research on faculty careers shows that institutions that act as incubators for professional growth reap significant benefits in terms of the productivity, retention, and success of all faculty -- not just of women," says O'Meara.

The University of Maryland is a national leader in science and engineering research, and the implementation of the ADVANCE project will expand its reputation as a campus that cultivates the professional growth of women faculty members. The project will serve as a model for other institutions that endeavor to address similar challenges. A project website will share resources and disseminate research findings and project accomplishments. This information will also be published in peer-reviewed journals and shared through outreach efforts.

"This will truly be an institutional transformation," says Avis Cohen, project director. "We're thrilled that we'll be able to have an impact on all parts of the university with the support that we have received, and that we'll be changing the culture to make this a great institution for the excellent young women and men of today and the future."


More Information:

NSF ADVANCE program:

Avis Cohen lab website:

Alison Flatau website:

Eugenia Kalnay website:

Provost Farvardin's bio:

Darryll Pines bio:

Kerry Ann O'Meara website:

By Kelly Blake, College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences

Published November 10, 2010