A National Science Foundation grant supports equity efforts in STEM

Three years ago, at the invitation of biology professor Anna Sher, women leaders from the University of Denver’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics came together to launch the STEM Women Faculty Association, designed to assess and address the needs of women-identified faculty in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Now Sher’s collaboration with that group has led to a nearly $1 million Natural Science Foundation ADVANCE grant, aimed to spur gender equity in STEM disciplines through a new initiative, DU MERISTEM.

DU MERISTEM (named for a tissue that helps plants grow and heal) will work to create sustainable change that benefits the entire community.

“My own experience was one of feeling very isolated and alone,” Sher recalls. 

The grant sprang from Sher’s team of scholars from various DU disciplines. Provost Mary Clark is the grant’s principal investigator, and Sher’s co-principal investigators are Corinne Lengsfeld, senior vice provost for research and graduate education; Kristin Deal, director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion; and Deb Ortega, professor and director of the Latinx Center. Bolstering this team are nearly 50 faculty, administrators and staff members, including NSM grant coordinator Helen McGrath.

“One of the best ways to change a system is to … get an outside perspective,” says Ortega, DU’s first Latina full professor in the Graduate School of Social Work. “By opening this [team to people in other disciplines], you get that perspective.”

DU MERISTEM has three key priorities: Increase hiring diversity, buttress support throughout a person’s career, and enhance the climate for women and others who are historically underrepresented in these male-dominated fields.

This work is particularly important in the STEM disciplines, says Lengsfeld, who also teaches in the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science. Only 2% of STEM faculty might be women, so retaining even one can have an enormous impact, she says. And young women students need women faculty members’ support to stanch this trend. 

Chancellor Jeremy Haefner considers the grant an important complement to DU’s dedication to the public good.

“This Advance grant represents a commitment by the University to gender equity,” he says. “It’s also a promise to promote the expansion of opportunity.” All of DU is served when women and underrepresented faculty are better supported, Haefner says.

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