UW Today

January 20, 2011

Encouraging women scientists in industry, government to enter academia

News and Information

OnRamps into AcademiaWhile most professors follow a standard path from graduate school to post-doc to tenure-track position, a few begin their research careers elsewhere and then move to academia.

Little support exists for those considering such a transition, and many scientists are told that moving to industry is a one-way path. But encouraging women to return to academia might boost the number of female faculty in engineering, science and math departments.

The On-Ramps into Academia workshop at the University of Washington, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, helps experienced women researchers make the leap.

“There are people who really always wanted to be professors but for whatever reason they didnt go to a university, and now they would like to have another crack at it,” said principal investigator Eve Riskin, a UW professor of electrical engineering.

“Its a zero-sum game when universities hire women away from other institutions,” Riskin said. “This is the first program to focus on women in industry and government labs as a new pool of qualified applicants.”

Cecilia Aragon

The second On-Ramps workshop takes place May 15-17 at the Washington Park Arboretum. Women who hold a doctorate in science, engineering or math and currently work in government, industry or as consultants are invited to apply online. Participants registration, accommodation and food are covered, and some travel funding is available.

Priority will go to applications received before Feb. 15, 2011.

The first of three On-Ramps workshops was held in 2009. Of the twenty-seven participants, five are now in tenure-track positions, and at least two more are in the application process (these numbers might be higher, organizers add, except that economic realities have shrunk state institutions hiring budgets).

Past participants might continue to apply for academic jobs in years to come.

“One piece of advice I would have is be prepared for the process to take a long time,” said On-Ramps participant Cecilia Aragon, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who recently accepted a position as associate professor of human centered design and engineering at the UW.

Debra Wallace

Debra Wallace

“Ive been thinking about this for a number of years,” Aragon said. She sought advice from colleagues in academia and had worked to boost her academic credentials.

“I learned so much more from attending the workshop,” Aragon said. “If the workshop had existed three years back, it would have been very valuable.”

Another past On-Ramps participant, Debra Wallace, had been teaching classes as an adjunct professor while running a business. She attended On-Ramps to get help moving to a full-time academic position and is now an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

Wallace says her new job makes better use of her education and research experience. The flexible schedule also allows her to balance work and personal obligations, “even though I sometimes feel that my students have my cell number on speed dial,” she joked.

Tina Eliassi-Rad

Tina Eliassi-Rad

Tina Eliassi-Rad, an assistant professor of computer science at Rutgers University and former scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, had already accepted an academic position by the workshop date, but attended On-Ramps to share her recent experiences in applying and interviewing for academic jobs.

“An academic career provides the intellectual freedom that is hard to find in industry or government labs,” Eliassi-Rad said of her decision.

“On-Ramps is helpful because it showcases successful females who have transitioned to academia, it provides hands-on feedback on the academic dossier, and it outlines what candidates should expect when they go on the academic market,” Eliassi-Rad said.

Other high-profile women faculty in science and engineering who have followed this route include Jennifer Rexford, professor of computer science at Princeton University and former researcher at AT&T, and Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College and former researcher at IBM.

Nobody has studied the researchers who make this transition, Riskin said. Part of On-Ramps includes surveying participants on what factors influence their decision and following their progress.

This years speakers include Cherry Murray, who became dean of Harvard Universitys School of Engineering and Applied Sciences after working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Bell Labs. Murray will talk about applying for academic leadership positions.

Some UW science and engineering faculty who held positions outside academia include Suzie Pun, associate professor of bioengineering, who previously worked at biotech company Insert Therapeutics; electrical engineering professor Lin Lin, formerly at AT&T and Tellium; associate professor of astronomy Victoria Meadows, formerly at NASA; Anna Karlin, a professor of computer science and engineering who previously worked at Digital Equipment Corporation’s Systems Research Center; and College of Engineering dean Matt ODonnell, formerly at General Electric.

Aragon and O’Donnell are some of the speakers who will share their advice and experience at the spring workshop.

Co-investigators on the grant are O’Donnell; Joyce Yen, program manager for the UWs Advance Center for Institutional Change; Suzanne Brainard, director of the UW’s Center for Workforce Development; and Ana Mari Cauce, dean of the
UW College of Arts and Sciences.

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For more information, contact Riskin at 206-685-2313 and riskin@uw.edu. Contact Aragon at aragon@uw.edu.

Apply at http://www.engr.washington.edu/onramp/about_us.htm