Dr. Annica Wayman

Dr. Annica Wayman: Engineering a Path for Herself and Others

By Patricia Soochan

It’s impossible to pigeonhole Dr. Annica Wayman. Not only has she has excelled as a leader in her chosen field of engineering, where women, and especially women of color, have been persistently underrepresented; in an era of specialization, she has moved seamlessly from one employment sector to another.

Dr. Wayman’s versatile career took off after she earned her PhD in mechanical engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology, where her research focus was bioengineering. After finishing her doctoral work, she first took a position as a senior engineer at Becton Dickinson. She then received an AAAS science and technology policy fellowship at USAID, where she stayed on as team lead and eventually advanced to division chief.

She is currently associate dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) at The Universities at Shady Grove, where she directs the undergraduate program in translational life sciences technology and the master’s degree program in biotechnology for working professionals. Throughout her career, as she has traversed multiple professional sectors, she has remained a champion of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Recognizing Talent and Opportunity

Dr. Wayman grew up in the Philadelphia area and attended a predominantly white high school. She excelled in math and discovered an affinity for the sciences after taking chemistry and physics classes. She knew then that she wanted to discover how things work, while engaging her keen interest in math. After many conversations with her parents and after job shadowing at a local chemical engineering company where her next-door neighbor worked, she decided to study engineering herself. She was realistic, though, about the hurdles she would face: she had often been the only Black student in advanced science and math classes at her school, and she also had a sobering conversation with her father about the challenges she would likely experience as a young, Black woman pursing this career path where again she may not have classmates that looked like her, thus may feel isolated and uncertain. Those realities convinced her that she needed to find a college with a supportive environment.

She got some unexpected help with this decision. For a while, during her high school years, she followed a mostly conventional path, but then she decided to break some boundaries: she ran for office and became the school president. In this role, she helped host a visit by UMBC’s then-president, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, on the school’s newly instituted Diversity Day. She had not heard of UMBC, but when she met Dr. Hrabowski, he peppered her with questions about her grades and professional aspirations. The next day, after she introduced him on stage, he offered her—in front of the entire audience—a Meyerhoff scholarship to attend UMBC. She accepted and credits her experience at UMBC with giving her the f inancial, academic, and emotional support she needed to persist and graduate with a degree in engineering.

A Rocky Start and Then a Clear Path to Engineering with a Purpose

During her first year at UMBC, she did an internship at Black and Decker exploring air flow in power tools. Although she found the project intellectually stimulating, she realized that she wanted to pursue engineering research that was more immediately relevant to the good of society and, in particular, to human health.

After graduation, she followed the anticipated postbaccalaureate path for Meyerhoff scholars: a postgraduate program. She entered the PhD mechanical engineering program at Georgia Institute of Technology, but it was not a smooth transition. Unlike her undergraduate experience, in which she felt that her talent was nurtured, the grad program was highly competitive. Although her research was in bioengineering, it was basic rather than applied research, with clinical benefits farther in the distance.

In an attempt to reorient herself, she took classes in public policy, which she liked, but it wasn’t clear to her how to carve out a career path in that area. After admittedly “crawling across the finish line” to her PhD, she decided that the best path to translational research—research that truly applied to human health—would be through industry. So she accepted a job at Becton Dickinson, along with several other freshly minted PhDs, and in her new role she learned a lot about product development, patented a few anesthetic devices, and, critically for her, regained her footing, confident that she could succeed as an engineer with a passion for translational research.

Newly self-assured, Dr. Wayman decided that the time was right to explore her interest in public policy, sparked during her lean years in grad school, and so she undertook an extra assignment in global health policy at Becton Dickinson. About a year later, she decided to accept the AAAS fellowship in science and technology policy at USAID, and she was offered a position to build a team that eventually grew from two to ten members. In this role she established an equity program, Research Partnerships for Development, which provided scientific resources in middle income countries by directly funding their researchers.

At USAID Dr. Wayman became familiar with this aphorism: “Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not.”  She took this principle to heart when she decided to return to UMBC, this time as a working professional determined to provide opportunities to talented young adults. After she agreed to become a senior administrator at UMBC, she established a new workforcedevelopment biotechnology program in the middle of the 2020–2021 pandemic. She is proud of the career opportunities that the program provides for its many community-college transfer students, the majority of whom are women and from minority groups underrepresented in the sciences.

Strategically Building Bridges Across Boundaries

What strategies has Dr. Wayman employed, while carving out her satisfying and distinctly diverse career? She reveals that she is someone who mostly follows a conventional path but who, at critical points, has an urge to explore the unknown. Still, she always intentionally prepares herself for the next move, by first analyzing and then f illing in any skills gaps she may have, all while carrying her foundational skills with her. In this way, although the moves may seem like jumps, she always builds a bridge to carry her across the next boundary.

She reports that her most difficult boundary crossing was leaving academe, which favors deep probing and specialization, to go into industry, where she learned to balance the desire for deep inquiry with the urgency of a set timeline for releasing a product. Moving from industry to government was a less steep boundary crossing, but it nonetheless encompassed a change in mindset and practices. She thinks her research skills were her bridge to policy work, which allowed her to take many disparate ideas and build them into implementable programs. Similarly, the efficiency she learned in industry allowed her to be an effective administrator in government. Her move to UMBC was unanticipated, but she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help build programs to provide opportunities for often unrecognized talent.

Dr. Wayman has no regrets about crossing multiple professional boundaries, but she recognizes that she is standing on the shoulders of those who were not as fortunate to have had the options she has had. She recalls the concern many older relatives expressed when she left the stability of a job in industry to pursue a fellowship and then left a GS government job for an academic, administrative position. She understands the historic reasons for such reservations, but she recognizes that this hesitation can sometimes feel like pressure to stay with the status quo.

She shares the following advice for all women who aspire to switch professional sectors: “Building bridges across boundaries, such as pursuing fellowships, may slow your career progression, but it will help ensure success.” She advises that it is also important for women to be open to the opportunities that boundary crossing can bring. She doesn’t think she would have her current job at UMBC, where she interacts with such different sectors as industry and local government, if it were not for her cross-sector experiences.

Dr. Wayman does not yet have her next boundary crossing in mind. She is in her fourth year at UMBC, and she reports that there is much still to be done, especially because of the pandemic.

Moving the Needle on DEI

In 2019, Dr. Wayman wrote an article entitled Applying Lessons from Civil Rights Leaders to Move the Needle in Higher Education. She believes that after two-plus years of a pandemic and rising national awareness about continued social injustice, we now have a common language for injustice. There is awareness now, for example, of the difference between equality and equity and of what microaggressions are. This language is important for us to continue difficult conversations about DEI. She recognizes, though, that while important DEI work was just getting underway over the past two years, the pandemic also set the nation back where people need time to recover physically and emotionally. Dr. Wayman insists, however, that as we keep moving the needle toward social justice, we should be careful with trying to define an endpoint. She adds that if we don’t keep DEI as a priority, we will regress.

An Empathic Leader

Just what feeds Dr. Wayman’s soul? She admits that she is still trying to answer this question.  She thinks a lot about balancing work and family life. She acknowledges the importance of her husband’s support of her varied career path (he is also a UMBC Meyerhoff engineering alum), and she loves discovering new things with her three sons. She adds that it is important to care for oneself as one cares for others, declaring that she loves novelty: new things, new places, new people.

When thinking about her professional life, she recalls that as she transitioned into leadership, she began to accept that her contributions as an administrator would be different from those she made as a hands-on researcher or program contributor. In this way, she believes her biggest professional reward is empowering others to grow professionally while building programs with them. She shares, “Empathy, which some say is a ‘superpower’ of women, is one of the most important qualities I see in myself as a leader.”  

Headshot of Patricia SoochanPatricia Soochan is a program officer and member of the multidisciplinary team at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with primary responsibility for the development and execution of the Inclusive Excellence (IE1&2) initiative. Previously she had lead responsibility for science education grants to primarily undergraduate institutions, a precursor of IE. She has served as a councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research and is a contributing writer for AWIS Magazine and the Nucleus. Prior to joining HHMI, she was a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, a science writer for a consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and a research and development scientist at Life Technologies. She received her BS and MS degrees in biology from George Washington University.

Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI.

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.