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Making WAVES

Creating a Climate for Change

Asst. Prof. Grace Chen with honors plastics engineering major Greg Reimonn
Asst. Prof. Grace Chen, seen here with honors plastics engineering major Greg Reimonn, says she came to UMass Lowell because of its support for faculty equity.

04/06/2019
By Katharine Webster

“Find a mentor,” infectious diseases researcher Dr. Deborah T. Hung told junior faculty and graduate students during a 50/50 Networking Series lecture in January.

A good mentor advocates for you when you’re applying for fellowships, jobs and grants, said Hung, a professor at Harvard Medical School, a researcher at MIT’s Broad Institute and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. A good mentor also puts setbacks in perspective, she said: “A mentor can say, ‘Oh, that happened to me 10 times. You’ll be fine.’ ”

Connecting faculty at UMass Lowell with great mentors is one goal of the 50/50 Networking Series, which allows a UML faculty host – in Hung’s case, Chemistry Prof. Mingdi Yan – to invite an expert in their field to deliver a guest lecture that’s half about their research and half about their career path. The other goal is to demystify the expert’s struggles and successes. “It removes that stigma against asking about anything besides their research,” says Assoc. Prof. of Plastics Engineering Meg Sobkowicz-Kline.

The 50/50 series is part of the university’s Making WAVES initiative (Making Women Academics Valued and Engaged in STEM), an interdisciplinary effort to recruit, support and retain women faculty in science, technology, engineering and math that’s supported by a five-year, $3.5 million National Science Foundation grant. Nationally, women earn 41 percent of doctorates in STEM fields, but make up only 28 percent of tenure-track faculty in those fields.

The university’s Center for Women and Work is leading the Making WAVES project, which has three main goals: to disrupt microaggressions and gender bias, to provide alternative support networks and mentoring for faculty and to promote equitable policies and practices.

“Creating a welcoming and inclusive climate is key to attracting and retaining talented faculty and improving diversity in our student body, too,” says Engineering Dean Joseph Hartman, who serves on the project’s advisory committee.

In February, UMass Lowell became one of the first three universities nationwide to win recognition for its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and innovation, says the STEM Equity Achievement (SEA) Change award recognizes the university’s commitment to “making development of a more inclusive culture a focus of our strategic plan, resulting in innovative programs,” including Making WAVES.

Now in its third year, Making WAVES includes several initiatives besides the 50/50 series:

  • The Subtle Gender Bias Index, a biannual campus climate survey for faculty that was developed under a previous NSF grant;
  • Bystander training workshops that give faculty tools to intervene when they witness microaggressions – gender- and race-based slights and assumptions that, taken individually, may seem minor, but that add up to an intolerable environment for people who are frequent targets;
  • The Daily Bias Survey, an online, 30-day mini-survey for faculty at UML and other U.S. universities to report microaggressions they experience or witness;
  • The “Foggy Climate Initiative,” a systematic effort to implement clear, equitable standards for faculty hiring, promotion and service assignments, such as student advising and committee work;
  • Leadership training for associate professors who want to start a group that brings together faculty of varying ranks and departments around a common research interest, and;
  • Department-level accountability, including identifying challenges, setting goals and collecting data to measure progress.

Sobkowicz-Kline, who is the Making WAVES co-investigator for the Francis College of Engineering, says work with the university-wide advisory board has already yielded one significant policy change: Upon the birth or adoption of a child, junior faculty are automatically granted an extension of time to work toward tenure, instead of having to ask for it.

Chemistry Prof. Mingdi Yan, Deborah T. Hung and Assoc. Prof. Meg Sobkowicz-Kline
Chemistry Prof. Mingdi Yan, left, invited Dr. Deborah T. Hung, center, to deliver a 50/50 Lecture, arranged by plastics engineering Assoc. Prof. Meg Sobkowicz-Kline, right.
But continuing grassroots change is also essential, Sobkowicz-Kline says, including the workshops on preventing microaggressions. Created by faculty for faculty, they have grown in popularity since they debuted last summer, with 100 people going through the training over the summer and fall. The first of six sessions this spring filled up fast after Hartman promoted the workshops at a college retreat, she says.

The team of “Equity Leaders” who developed the workshops is now training other faculty to facilitate them. Sobkowicz-Kline says the feedback so far has been positive. “We’ve seen both anecdotally and from before- and-after surveys that faculty report greater awareness of microaggressions and greater confidence to intervene effectively after the training. And now the word is spreading,” she says.

Asst. Prof. of Plastics Engineering Wan-Ting (Grace) Chen says Making WAVES was an important factor in her decision to come to UMass Lowell last fall. “It means this institution cares about equality between faculty, and this university cares about good mentoring relationships for faculty,” she says.

At the 50/50 lecture, Chen was struck by Hung’s answer to a question about how she balances her multiple professional roles and family time. “You can’t have it all,” Hung replied. “Instead, ask yourself, ‘Can  I  have what I want?’ You have to choose. And then don’t apologize for your choices. Don’t feel guilty. Sometimes, you just have to say ‘No.’”

Chen says she felt relief when Hung admitted she doesn’t always do the best job with work-life balance – and she found help in her answer. “She wears multiple hats, so her experience really inspired me,” Chen says.