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Grant Creates New Pathway For Minority Women In STEM

Women attending a doctoral boot camp at USF Tampa.
A new grant focusing on minority women studying in the STEM field will be used to fund boot camps modeled after week-long intensive that have been happening at USF Tampa for five years. COURTESY DR. DEVONA F. PIERRE

Minority women believe it’s their time to be role models in the male-dominated STEM field and a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation is providing five universities with the resources to help them do it.

The Florida Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate is led by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and includes Florida A&M University, Florida International University, Florida Memorial University, and Bethune-Cookman University.

Each university will be working with doctoral, post-doctoral, and early-career minority women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) on their campuses.

“I think it’s twofold- it’s to increase awareness that it is a viable option, that you will have support to be successful,” said Dr. Sonja Montas-Hunter, Assistant Vice Provost for Student Access and Success at FIU. “Number two is just to educate: this is how you succeed, these are the women that have done it, and these are the strategies to be successful in academia.”

Beginning in the 2020 fall semester, the alliance will host three research boot camps each year, in north, central, and south Florida. The camps will be modeled after week-long intensive sessions that have been happening at USF Tampa for five years.

Dr. Devona F. Pierre, Assistant Director of Faculty Diversity at USF and co-author of the grant, said she is excited to “blaze this trail” and work with other institutions to see what works best for them.

Dr. Allyson Watson helps a Hispanic female student with a robotics experiment.
Dr. Allyson Watson, co-author of the grant and a life-long educator, is focused on the positive effects of being a role model in STEM at the university level. COURTESY DR. ALLYSON L. WATSON

“It’s extremely important because we’re impacting not just one institution, but we’re impacting the state of Florida,” Pierre said. “Hopefully, others will see what’s being done in the state and they will replicate it.”

After accepting the role of Interim Associate Dean for the College of Education at USFSP this past summer, Dr. Brenda L. Walker became a principal investigator for the grant program.

She said the goal is to create groups of minority women who will be prepared to join a university’s faculty in a STEM department and “they, in turn, will then mentor and prepare other faculties.”

“The beauty of it is, it also develops a model of preparing faculty for STEM careers that can be used around the country,” Walker said.

Pierre’s co-author, Dr. Allyson L. Watson, Dean of the College of Education at FAMU, said she always gravitated toward science and technology, but didn’t see a lot of women represented in these fields.

“We want the universities across the state of Florida, but also across the nation, to know that in order to have an output of women of color in STEM fields, you have to have an input of measures of partnership and true strategy around building a scholarship platform,” said Watson.

Dr. Sandra Vernon-Jackson teaching a class in the INQ Lab at USF St. Petersburg.
Dr. Sandra Vernon-Jackson said it's time for minority women to be role models in STEM and show the next generation that there is a place for them in the field. COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA ST. PETERSBURG

The grant program will have an even wider effect on campuses, said Dr. Adrienne Cooper, Provost of Florida Memorial University and the university’s grant representative.

“We are also working with faculty and administrators in STEM to really help them see and understand the benefit of having this diverse workforce,” said Cooper. “The data is clear that diversity brings innovation, it leads to creativity, and it improves performance in every way that's measurable - and probably in some ways that aren’t.”

Dr. Sandra Vernon-Jackson, director of the https://vimeo.com/318299792" target="_blank">INQ Lab at USF St. Petersburg, said women of color in STEM need to step up and lead the way for the younger generation.

“I have to fulfill that pipeline by allowing young girls to see themselves in a science, in a technology, in a mathematics, and in an engineering related field,” said Vernon-Jackson. “We are the foot soldiers. If a woman does not speak up for all the women, then we would have failed.”

Alysia Cruz is the WUSF Stephen Noble news intern for the fall 2019 semester. She earned her Bachelor’s degree at the University of South Florida in Communication and is now enrolled at USF St. Petersburg, pursuing her Master’s in Digital Journalism & Design concentrating on food writing.
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