Feature image: VCU School of Engineering
With an annual budget of $8.8 billion, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) advances research at U.S. colleges and universities and provides opportunities for science education from the precollege to postgraduate level. NSF has had a longstanding commitment to programs that increase participation of people underrepresented in science and technology, including women. One of the Foundation’s most prominent contributions in increasing the representation of women in science is its cross-directorate program for the advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers (ADVANCE), in which it has invested over $270 million since 2001. The Foundation has made a parallel investment in the advancement of women among its staff. Although only two women have been appointed to the top leadership position (not including acting directors) since the first NSF director was appointed in 1951, women today occupy top leadership positions in five of its seven directorates in disciplines spanning geosciences to engineering and as its chief operating officer. In addition, women occupy key positions on its advisory National Science Board, including the current chairperson.
I spoke recently to three women with diverse STEM backgrounds, who currently have taken on different leadership roles at NSF, about how they have navigated their career trajectories and about their leadership styles and visions for their programs. The first is Dr. Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves, Director of the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR).
Making Inclusive Excellence Normative in STEM Undergraduate Education
Dr. Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves is on rotation from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia, where she is a professor of electrical and computer engineering. Her advancement from her initial hiring at VCU to her appointment as the NSF’s DUE director in August 2021 has been driven by her own passion and interests in diversifying STEM education. But she also credits the guidance of generous mentors, who have pointed her toward career-enhancing opportunities, sometimes even before she recognized that she was ready for them.
She cites two leadership development experiences in particular that have been critical to her professional growth. First, while serving as an associate professor and working to cofound the electrical engineering department at VCU, she received advice from her mentor, Provost Emerita Grace Harris, who persuaded her to participate in the Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute. The second piece of crucial advice came from her mentor at the time, then VCU President Eugene Trani, who urged her to apply for an associate dean position that had just become available.
Interestingly, Dr. Hargraves characterizes her move to administration, from her role as an associate professor, as more typical for women faculty than for men, who tend to transition after becoming full professors. When I asked her why she thinks this is so, she admits that it took her longer to consider herself sufficiently credentialed as a full professor, while already viewing herself as prepared for an administrative role, perhaps because the latter is often considered service to the university. She did not submit her research portfolio and petition to become a full professor until right before her move to NSF.
Following her appointment as associate dean, Dr. Hargraves went on to become associate vice president of the Division for Inclusive Excellence at VCU. Among her steepest learning curves as an administrator was navigating the power dynamics among faculty members who had dominant identities and senior rank. Reflecting on this experience, she now realizes that although she did not yet have diversity-and-equity language in her wheelhouse and wasn’t acquainted with phrases like “unconscious bias” and “microaggressions,” she was actually encountering such challenges right off the bat.
Her career trajectory has also included intentional lateral moves, when they have aligned with her passions and interests. Upon returning to the faculty after the birth of her daughter, she accepted a joint appointment in Teaching and Learning (secondary STEM education).
“I had to find a way to be a collaborative leader, to be able to ask questions, defer to others, and feel comfortable in that.” —Dr. Rosalyn Hobson Hargraves on finding her leadership style
Immediately prior to her appointment at NSF, Dr. Hargraves was an American College on Education (ACE) Fellow at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The fellowship was a critical proving ground for envisioning herself as an effective leader, while staying true to her identity. She has built a collaborative, strengths-based leadership style, through which she is able to “engage with my team in ways that empower them without disempowering me” and that “recognize that everyone brings a set of strengths to the team, which allows me to value everyone and ensure that each person has a voice.” As a mentor, she has learned that she can promote the development of others without diminishing her own achievements.
Strengthened by her confidence in her leadership abilities and inspired by DUE’s mission to promote excellence in undergraduate STEM education, Dr. Hargraves felt ready to apply to serve as its director in 2021. Her vision for DUE is that it continue to grow in ways that align with NSF’s renewed mission to address the Missing Millions: “people who are capable of succeeding as scientists and engineers but who do not have access to pathways that lead into those careers.” Furthermore, she hopes that DUE’s programs will promote inclusive excellence as the normative culture for all undergraduate STEM education. In her own professional growth, her role as DUE director will allow her to lead a larger team and to engage in policy development that has national implications.
Patricia 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. She has been an AWIS member since 20003. (Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI.)