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For women in STEM, focus is on creating networks

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The opportunity to meet peers with whom to connect is critical to advancement in the academic world; Katia Passerini says that can be a problem area for women in the STEM fields.
The opportunity to meet peers with whom to connect is critical to advancement in the academic world; Katia Passerini says that can be a problem area for women in the STEM fields. - ()

In Katia Passerini's first few years on the faculty at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark, she joined forces with another professor there and applied for a grant. For Passerini, it was the first time she'd gone after grant funding.

She received so much more than money in the process.

For Passerini, it not only was a crash course in the process that is the financial lifeblood for so many researchers, but also an eye-opener to one of the biggest issues women in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — face: finding peers to connect with.

"If you don't get the opportunity to meet these people, you're not going to get the opportunity to apply for grants or publish more," said Passerini, who was appointed interim dean of NJIT's Albert Dorman Honors College earlier this month.

"Women tend to be a little shy in saying they need help," she said. "There is this need for social interaction, sharing, creating networks."

To address that need, NJIT's Advance Program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and studies how to attract and retain women faculty in the STEM fields, has created a sort of online social network for the university's faculty. The tool, still in a beta version, is scheduled to go live across the university this fall.

For years, there has been a concerted push to boost the country's reputation when it comes to innovation in science and technology. More recently, the goal has been to level the STEM playing field with equal parts men and women. A lot of that has centered on increasing the number of female students majoring in these areas. At 26 percent, NJIT already has exceeded its goal of having females make up 25 percent of the total student population by 2015.

But the university also wants to make the percentage of women on the faculty mirror that of the student body. In 2012 alone, 24 percent of new tenure-track faculty members at NJIT were women.

Those numbers are strong, Passerini said. But adding female professors is only part of what it will take to change the landscape of the university. The real trick is to keep those professors for the long haul.

Passerini said NJIT has added a policy that allows women to stop the clock on the tenure process and take up to a year off when they have a child — a development she called "revolutionary." But in the long run, collaborations — like those promised by the Advance tool — are vital.

Passerini worked on creating the tool alongside Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, the director of NJIT's Murray Center for Women in Technology, who has studied extensively the sense of isolation among female faculty members in the STEM fields.

The tool works like LinkedIn, she said. It identifies each faculty member by research area and allows professors to search for people doing work in similar fields. It may seem like those professors would likely already know who else is working in their particular areas, but the connections are not always obvious, Steffen-Fluhr said.

For example, Martina Decker, who joined NJIT in the fall of 2012, is an assistant professor of architecture, but her research has a strong scientific component. She studies how new materials being engineered for other uses can be manipulated and used to solve architectural problems, such as sustainability or environmental efficiency. Her research demands collaboration, and NJIT gave her the opportunity to share her work through a lecture series when she first arrived, which set a lot of collaborative work in motion.

"In collaboration, you're really bringing to the table the best that everybody has to offer," Decker said. "Also, in time, it just creates a supporting network that can enable you in your endeavors."

Perhaps the most important element of NJIT's online tool is facilitating those connections, Steffen-Fluhr said. Once it identifies a professor in a similar field, the tool creates a map of whom that person has collaborated with in the past.

"That map of research connections allows you to find a pathway to broker an introduction," she said. "Your connections are sources of information for you."

The map also helps the university identify which professors may be at risk of isolating themselves from the rest of the faculty.

"We are able to see if there are people at the edges of the network," Passerini says in a video on the Advance website. "We can track whether they are at risk of falling out, or if there are strategies we can use to bring them back inside with a new career development plan or a new mentoring program."

Female faculty members at the school agree that collaboration is essential.

"Women in general tend to work well in teams," said Tara Alvarez, who joined the NJIT faculty in 2001. "By doing this collectively, they don't feel so isolated. And I think that is helpful in getting women to be engaged and feel that they can succeed."

Alvarez, who studies visual impairments brought on by traumatic brain injuries and serves as a mentor with Advance, said she is hopeful that, in time, the STEM landscape will look different.

"My kids come to me to get their toys fixed," Alvarez said. "My kids are going to know that mommy is a scientist. … For them, it's not going to be strange."

E-mail to: maryj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mjohns422

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