ADVANCE Program Hits Three Years
The UA's ADVANCE program, in its third year, continues to try and eradicate gender inequity within the academy.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications
July 1, 2009

Three years have passed since The University of Arizona landed a major National Science Foundation grant with the charge to disband gender inequity within the academy while also promoting equity across campus.

The $3.3 million, five-year "ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Award: Eradicating Subtle Discrimination in the Academy," carries a three-fold mission: to promote faculty diversity, create an equitable climate within the institution and to support women toward leadership roles and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"There have been a lot of studies that have shown men and women have not been paid the same, and there are other inequities," said Leslie Tolbert, UA's vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development.

ADVANCE, Tolbert noted, is trying to address overt and covert instances of discrimination.

The research program addresses the disproportionate number of women in leadership positions in higher education and also in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, disciplines. Recent research also has indicated that subtle discrimination can affect a person's physical and mental health and reduce productivity. 

"We all carry various kinds of bias," Tolbert said. "You can't eradicate it, but you can make us all aware of it so that we can work against these innate, unfair biases."

Tolbert, who serves as the principal investigator on the grant, said women tend to enter positions of leadership in lower rates than men and tend to leave positions at a higher rate. These are issues the UA has been aware of "for a long time," she added.

In describing the program, the National Science Foundation reported on its Web site that the "destructive role played by subtle discrimination is becoming well-understood. Without intervention, an overly homogeneous culture tends to reproduce itself through the operation of unsuspected biases."

The problem, the agency continued is that even "well-intentioned interventions may be thwarted by subtle discrimination."

Attacking Gender Equity, Institution-wide

ADVANCE, which is coordinated by the UA's Center for Research on Equity and Opportunity, deals with discrimination through programs, services, practices and expectations.

That involves addressing issues related to hiring and the evaluation process of faculty and administrators, mentorship opportunities, unconscious bias, the campus climate and, overall, diversity.

"We believe there is equal availability of men and women at the graduate and post-doctoral level, but when we look at the faculty, we don't see the same representation of women," said Helena A. Rodrigues, project director of ADVANCE at the UA, said adding that it is an "honor" for the UA to have an ADVANCE grant.

"But it's more about being fair," she said, noting that research can be expanded by having a more diverse set of minds and experiences.

Numerous UA units and programs have assessed and addressed women's needs. They include the Commission on the Status of Women, Millennium Project and GRACE Project, the Southwest Institute for Research on Women and the gender and women's studies department.

But prior to ADVANCE, the UA did not have a sustained, administrative-level initiative meant to curtail instances of gender inequity within the context of hires, promotions and campus climate, Tolbert said. 

"We're building equity into the system so that it is something you have to deal with every time," Tolbert said, adding that Web-based features are being developed to aid in improving equity.

One feature is being developed for administrators during the hiring process. The program would alert administrators to the lack of diverse representation in the applicant pool, while another Web-based resource would aid faculty in ways they can improve their environments.

"We want to see in five or 10 years from now that we have more women in STEM, more women being hired and who stay," she added. "Also, we want to have made the climate a place where women can thrive."

Aiding Researchers Now for Future Equity

While certain services continue to be developed to that end, the ADVANCE program has been and continues to support a range of activities on campus.

The program offers themed orientations around equity issues and networking opportunities across departments. ADVANCE also hosts a distinguished and junior scientist lecture series to improve the visibility of women researchers in STEM fields.

The Distinguished Lecture Series sponsors leading female scientists outside of the UA to come to the University to speak. Meanwhile, the Junior Scientist Lecture Series funds women who are early in their professional scientific careers. The funding offered for each runs between $500 and $1,500 to aid in travel and lodging, and for other purposes.

The program also supports scientists through seed grants and fellowships with funding from $5,000 to $35,000.

The project's first seed grant went to Daniela Zarnescu and Carol Gregorio, both faculty members in the UA molecular and cellular biology department, for a research project to help understand the relationship between certain proteins and muscle development and repair.

Anne Wright, a pediatrics professor, assessed an intervention on faculty diversity in her college to determine whether the intervention aided in the diversification of applicants for faculty positions.

The research project involved a search committee orientation that was created as a result of an ADVANCE grant. The research involved collecting data on the college's applicant pool and analyzing those who had been hired.

"Basically, there is a drop off in the promotion of women who go from medical students to assistant, associate then full professors," Wright, the co-principal investigator on the grant, said adding that this is a nationwide problem. 

"One of the things I believe is if you can present data, data can change the way people think about things," Wright said, adding that her research continues.

"ADVANCE has done a lot in terms of dissemination of information to deans and department heads," she added, noting that preliminary findings indicate intervention has the potential to improve candidate pools. "If you can do careful research and communicate it to people, then you can change behavior."

Another researcher – Heddwen Brooks, a UA physiology professor – is working to determine ways that kidney damage progresses with the onslaught of diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes. Research has already shown that the evolution of kidney damage is different in men and woman, but Brooks is curious about exactly why.

She sought out an ADVANCE grant, in collaboration with Janet Funk, a UA medicine professor, to study effects that women would experience during the perimenopausal stage.

In her research, Brooks will seek to explain what happens to kidney function with the loss of estrogen and other changes associated with menopause. Ultimately, Brooks hopes her research will lead to ways to reduce diabetic kidney disease and also find alternatives to hormone replacement therapy.

"We need to understand why so we can then come up with better interventions and also treat kidney damage better," Brooks said, adding that she is using a model of menopause developed by Patricia Hoyer, a UA professor of physiology and also pharmacology and toxicology. Brooks will begin her new ADVANCE-supported research next month.

She added that the ADVANCE grant is of particular importance because it will allow her to work in an interdisciplinary fashion with a team that will collect data necessary to lead to more large-scale research projects and to be able to eventually seek funding from agencies like the National Institutes of Health and American Diabetes Association.

The ADVANCE program is notable for this. Where scientists would have a difficult time landing research grants for new ideas or being able to serve as principal investigators on projects, ADVANCE funding provides that opportunity to them.

"It is very difficult to get funding right now," Brooks said, adding that the research will involve physiological science.

"This grant allows new collaboration on things people haven't worked on before. This is a great opportunity to combine our ideas," Brooks said. "The collaborative effect of the grant, especially because it is for women, is unique. I have never seen a grant quite like this and, personally, I think it's a positive."

Extra info

The BIO5 Institute's KEYS, Keep Engaging Youth in Science, will be featured on Arizona Illustrated at 6:30 p.m. on July 2. The segment will feature the laboratories of Heddwen Brooks, an ADVANCE program grant recipient, and Walter Klimecki along with their interns.


Resources for the media

Helena A. Rodrigues