Virginia Tech Receives $3.5 Million NSF Grant to Advance Faculty Women in Science And Engineering

BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 6, 2003 – Using a $3.5 million institutional transformation grant from the National Science Foundation's (NSF) ADVANCE program, Virginia Tech will identify barriers that can keep women faculty members from choosing, remaining in, or advancing in science and engineering, and will develop ways to promote and enhance the careers of women in these disciplines.

The overall goal of the NSF ADVANCE program is to get more women involved in the scientific and engineering workforce by increasing the representation of women in academic science and engineering careers at all levels, particularly in leadership roles.

"Throughout the country, female faculty members in science and engineering encounter obstacles that discourage them from pursuing these fields or hinder their progress and satisfaction," said Mark McNamee, university provost and vice president for academic affairs.

"The NSF grant will provide us with the resources to identify and change the factors that contribute to low representation and stalled advancement. At the end of the five-year project, we anticipate becoming a model for other institutions to follow," McNamee said.

Virginia Tech has had relatively few women faculty members in the sciences and engineering during its 131-year history. In the fall of 2002, when the grant proposal was written, eight percent of the faculty members in the College of Engineering were women, while in the departments that now comprise the College of Science, 16 percent of the faculty members were women.

"In general the women in the sciences and engineering disciplines disappear or don't move up," said Patricia B. Hyer, associate provost for academic affairs at Virginia Tech and principal investigator on the project. "This NSF award will allow us to identify institutional barriers that constrain the advancement of women faculty members in these areas. We plan to target institutional culture, practices, and leadership development needs specific to this university," she said.

"Several women assistant professors have already joined the engineering faculty this fall," Hyer added, "giving us a good start on achieving the project goals."

Four ADVANCE professors have been named to serve on the project leadership team: Nancy Love, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Karen Thole, professor of mechanical engineering, to represent engineering, and Beate Schmittmann, professor of physics, and Catherine Eckel, professor of economics, to represent the sciences. Elizabeth Creamer, associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies, is director of assessment for the project. Peggy Layne, a former national president of the Society of Women Engineers, has been hired as coordinator to oversee project activities.

Hassan Aref, dean of engineering, predicts that the grant will stimulate changes for the College of Engineering. "My hope," he said, "is that we will be able to recruit at least two women into department headships as these positions become vacant over the next five years. In addition we should see several women assume technical leadership roles in the college, for example, as center directors or as principal investigators on major collaborative grants. These women faculty will be great role models for more junior colleagues and for graduate students and postdocs."

Lay Nam Chang, dean of the College of Science, said that "maximizing the contributions of every scientist is integral to the advancement of knowledge in our various disciplines. For this reason, the College of Science is actively participating in the NSF ADVANCE program. Our commitment to this program mirrors our commitment to increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science careers, which will result in the development of a more diverse and more capable workforce."

The ADVANCE project will consist of four program elements, including institutionalizing change, empowering women as leaders and scholars, increasing the representation of women, and advancing women into faculty careers. These four elements target women at different stages of their careers, from graduate student to faculty member to institutional leader. Among the activities planned as part of the project are visits by women scientists and engineers, mentoring programs, granting opportunities, and a major campus conference.