Michigan State University is a national leader among universities in the number of endowed faculty positions held by women. Of the 131 endowed positions currently occupied across campus, 24.4 percent are held by women. Nine of those are in the College of Natural Science—four donor-funded positions and five MSU Foundation Professors.
Today, it’s no secret that these College of Natural Science researchers have made names for themselves. Each holds an endowed faculty position at Michigan State and each received a gold medallion in recognition.
And they’re in good company. In addition to these endowed faculty researchers, six College of Natural Science women scientists are the recipients of National Science Foundation Early CAREER Faculty Awards in 2018. This group of NSF grant awards to a single college—and to six women faculty members in the same year—is unprecedented at MSU.
Amy Ralston began working in a lab at age 14 as a result of shadowing a female professor on Career Day. Angela Wilson got hooked on chemistry because of some fascinating demonstrations by her high school chemistry teacher. Melanie Cooper realized, after completing her Ph.D. and postdoctoral work, that she was more interested in how people learn chemistry, rather than the chemistry itself. As a child, Cheryl Kerfeld was fascinated by the natural world, particularly things she couldn’t see by eye alone; but she kept her microscope a secret from her friends because, well, that just wasn’t something that a little girl was typically interested in back then.
These four donor-funded endowed faculty members represent exceptional researchers and, along their path to success, all have overcome some challenges unique to women scientists.
For much of her career, Cooper says she felt she wasn’t part of the prevailing culture in her discipline. She joined the MSU chemistry faculty in 2013 as the first Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education. A world-renowned chemist and science education pioneer, she holds joint appointments in the Department of Chemistry, the Department of Teacher Education and MSU’s CREATE for STEM Institute. “This endowed position provides an imprimatur for chemistry education research, and I hope that others can follow in my footsteps.”
Kerfeld, who came to MSU in 2013 as the John Hannah Distinguished Professor of structural bioengineering, had the opportunity to learn from a few female scientists who were frank with her about the special standards applied to women; their advice to her was to just accept that, and become a better scientist.
“Accordingly, my piece of advice to female scientists early in their careers is to do a portion of their training under the mentorship of a woman scientist,” says Kerfeld, who holds joint appointments in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the MSU-Department of Energy Plant Research Laboratory. Her work applies engineering approaches to living systems to create new sources of energy that could power the world in a healthy, sustainable way.
“I feel honored that MSU was confident in my ideas, and confident on the basis of my past work, to make an investment in my group,” Kerfeld says.
While a typical endowment acknowledges a faculty member’s achievements over a long and productive career, the James K. Billman, Jr., M.D. Endowed Professor position, held by Ralston, provides a stable source of funding for a new, young faculty member at the beginning of a career.
“When I was a beginning scientist, it was hard to know which choices were the best, and it was difficult to determine the most efficient path to scientific productivity,” says Ralston, who joined the MSU faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in 2014 and was promoted to associate professor in 2017. “However, experience produces opportunities to realize, ‘I’ve done this before. I can do it again.’”
Ralston’s research focuses on how embryos make and use stem cells in order to create new ways to study and treat human health problems, including infertility and birth defects.
“Some of my greatest challenges as a woman scientist might have come from within myself, because self-confidence takes time to develop,” Ralston adds. “But Liz Robertson and Janet Rossant are two leaders in my field who have supported me, provided guidance and validated my approach as a scientist. When I know they believe in me, I believe in myself.”
Female mentorship is critical for young women in the sciences today, agrees Wilson, who joined MSU in 2016 as the John Hannah Distinguished Professor of computational chemistry and is also the director for the National Science Foundation’s Division of Chemistry. Her work focuses on new computational methods and how they apply to diverse problems, ranging from protein modeling to understanding the mechanical properties of aircraft design materials.
The field of computational chemistry has been predominantly male until recently. Thus, all of Wilson’s early mentors were male.
“I think it’s important to have multiple mentors, female mentors—or at least other women—to talk with about navigating career opportunities and career challenges,” Wilson says. “My mother has served as a significant source of inspiration for me through the years. She is not a scientist, but her values, advice and career in human resources have had an important influence on me.”
Advancing Scientific Discovery
These endowed positions confirm MSU’s respect and value for the work of these researchers.
“It’s great to be part of this large, vibrant group of people, all working on the same thing; it has raised the visibility of Michigan State in the STEM field in higher education. … We’ve been very fortunate to attract some high-level funding to support the work of transforming how and what we teach and how we assess it at the college level. I hope I can be a role model for others in my field—and not just women.”
“This endowed professorship has allowed my lab to do things we otherwise would not have been able to do. It has had a great impact on the productivity of my research group.”
“One of the greatest opportunities of this endowment is the enhanced flexibility the position provides to pursue quite different directions, taking greater risks toward potentially transformative science. At MSU, I have found amazing colleagues to collaborate with; I look forward to being here full time.”
“When I go to conferences, I certainly don’t run into many women with endowed faculty positions at my career level. The number of endowments MSU has established shows the world that MSU has resources to support research, and that MSU values research.”
Retaining Top Talent
The MSU Foundation Professor designation, established in 2014, is part of a university-wide initiative to attract and retain highly successful faculty members, with the primary aim of enhancing the stature of the institution in research and creative activity.
These talented researchers are leaders in their disciplines, advancing specific areas of scholarly need, disciplinary development, research or creative emphasis at MSU. Each of the recipients receives five years of supplemental research support and holds the MSU Foundation Professor title permanently.
To date, 31 individuals hold the MSU Foundation Professor title. Nineteen are in the College of Natural Science and, of those, five are women.
Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and microbiology and molecular genetics
Member of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory; conducts pioneering research to understand the dynamic molecular processes used by photosynthetic organisms to adapt to changes in their photoenvironment
C. Robin Buell
Professor of plant biology
Expert in the genomic aspects of plant biology and plant pathogens, working to speed the development and breeding of more productive, healthy, drought-tolerant and disease-resistant food and bioenergy crops
Associate professor of microbiology and molecular genetics
Applies molecular biology, epidemiological and evolutionary methods to answer questions about the evolution and transmission of pathogens in human and animal populations
Professor in the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory
Member of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Laboratory; seeks to understand how plants produce materials of many kinds and resist stress on Earth and in space environments
Professor of integrative biology
Internationally recognized for her research on phytoplankton communities in both freshwater and marine environments; professor at MSU’s W. K. Kellogg Biological Station