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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI advancing women scientists and engineers

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KINGSTON, R.I. –August 19, 2004—It’s fair to say that women are underrepresented in science around the world. For example, Yana Reshetnyak was the only woman in a theoretical physics class when she attended St. Petersburg State University, Russia.

Today, Reshetnyak is among a growing number of women scientists and engineers being recruited to the University of Rhode Island. This fall, the biophysicist from Yale University will join Yan Sun in the Computer and Electrical Engineering Department and Mayrai Gindy in the Civil Engineering Department as ADVANCE Faculty Fellows.

Two other women scientists, a plant scientist and a molecular biologist, are currently being recruited by the College of Environment and Life Sciences. In addition, a national search is underway for a female oceanographer.

In the U.S. women represent merely 22 percent of the science and engineering workforce and less than 20 percent of science and engineering faculty in four-year institutions. In response, the National Science Foundation developed the ADVANCE program to advance the careers of women faculty in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines in the nation’s universities. Janett Trubatch, vice provost for graduate studies, research, and outreach is the principal investigator of a five year, $3.5-million NSF ADVANCE grant that was awarded to URI last October.

"Science and technology are the cornerstones of our society. Women bring different viewpoints, perspectives, skills, and values to the scientific table which help broaden and integrate scientific practices with society’s needs," she said.

"Beyond equity for women in the workplace, women faculty are critically needed as role models for our students and making the workplace a family friendly environment is critical to societal well being," said the vice provost, noting that 55 percent of URI’s student body are women.

ADVANCE Faculty Fellows are just one part of URI’s ADVANCE program designed to increase the number of women faculty and promote careers of all women faculty.

The Fellows will have limited teaching assignments so that they can develop strong research programs within three years. Following their fellowship and the regular faculty review process, they will transition into tenure-track faculty positions that will be opening in their respective departments.

Another prominent woman scientist, Ellen Flannery Schroeder, will join URI’s Department of Psychology this fall, thanks to a supplement supplied by the ADVANCE grant.

In addition to its strong recruitment program, URI’s ADVANCE program provides faculty development opportunities. For example, eight faculty members received competitive Incentive Fund Awards, totaling $40,000, last winter. Biologist Allison Roberts received one of the awards. Her research on plant cells may one day lead to the production of super-strong textiles or wood products used in construction. Another award recipient is mathematician Nancy Eaton whose research on combinatorial graph theory could be applied to a myriad of uses, including scheduling problems faced by airlines and building managers. Industrial engineer Valerie Maier-Speredelozzi received funds to study manufacturing systems with the goal of improving the efficiency, productivity, quality, and flexibility of factories.

Other activities supported by the ADVANCE grant include:

• Faculty development opportunities, such as topical monthly luncheon series, mentorship training for senior faculty, who would in turn, mentor junior faculty.

• Guided workshops with academic departments facilitated by an outside organizational consultant. The workshops are designed to help departments become a welcoming place for everyone and a place where everyone can be productive. So far, five departments have been engaged in such talks. More are planned.

• The development of an extensive “Academic Work Environment Survey,” which was distributed to URI’s entire 700-plus faculty members. Survey results are being tabulated and analyzed and will be presented in November.

• Review and revision of University policies that affect employees, including the family leave policy and job placement for trailing spouses.

Reshetenyak’s husband, Oleg Andreev, is a trailing spouse who often co-author papers with his wife. Their research is focused on a peptide that shows great promise to deliver anti-cancer drugs. For now, Andreev is working on an adjunct basis in URI’s Physics Department.

The ADVANCE program director is Barbara Silver who wrote the grant application with Trubatch and seven science and engineering faculty.

“Our ADVANCE grant, along with the encouragement and financial support of Provost Swan, is helping us to create permanent change,” Trubatch said. “I want to stress, however, that the intention of this program is to benefit all faculty and the institution as a whole—not just women in science and engineering. By improving policies, providing workshops and speakers that are available to all, improving department climate, and bringing in more diverse perspectives, we all win."