For International Women’s Day, we sat down with women in research around the world to hear their stories. Jennifer Sinclair Curtis is the Dean of Engineering at the UC Davis College, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers and the American Society for Engineering Education.
Q. Tell us a bit about your background – what got you interested in your area of research?
A. In high school, I had a strong interest and aptitude for math and chemistry, so a high school counselor suggested I become a chemical engineer. Although I did not know anyone who was an engineer, or even anyone who worked in a STEM field, I followed the counselor’s advice and attended Purdue University to study chemical engineering.
At Purdue, I was involved in undergraduate research as well as a tutoring job in algebra. Both of those experiences led me to think about a research career in academia and to pursue a PhD. For my graduate research at Princeton, my faculty research advisor was internationally recognized for his work in granular flow. Because this topic impacts so many important application areas—from energy to pharmaceuticals to agriculture—my research has been focused on this area throughout my career.
Q. What have been the biggest challenges that you’ve had to overcome in your field due to your gender?
A. Although I am part of the first ‘wave’ of female engineers to enter academia, I was very fortunate at both Purdue and Princeton to have a female faculty role model. I have also had excellent male mentors throughout my career. For me, the biggest challenge has been maintaining work-life balance, particularly when my children were young and my husband had an engineering job in industry which involved a lot of international travel.
Q. Was there anyone who inspired you, or acted as a role model for you, when you were starting out on your career?
A. During my freshman year at Purdue, my undergraduate advisor, a renowned chemical engineering faculty member, inspired me by taking a personal interest in me and my success. As mentioned, I had no other STEM resources, so the guidance and support he offered was critical. He provided me with some great opportunities – including engaging in undergraduate research in his research group, encouraging me to publish, and helping me secure a national fellowship to continue my research in graduate school. I’ve modeled my own faculty career and mentorship of students by following his example.
Q. Is there anything you think the research community could be doing to encourage greater gender diversity in academia?
A. To change the landscape, we must ensure that women in engineering see other women at all levels. This will help undergraduate and graduate students picture themselves in this career path. In addition, policies, programs and resources which support female faculty members helps them flourish professionally. Examples include maternity leave, flexibility in the ‘tenure clock’, on-site child care, advocacy/education on gender-related issues, and professional development initiatives for female faculty.
At UC Davis, we are making inroads into addressing gender diversity. Since 2012, we have trained more than 1,000 faculty members about best practices for faculty recruitment and implicit bias to create an environment that is welcoming to and supportive of women. Today, UC Davis has shown dramatic changes at all levels. In 2017, Forbes named us the Best Value College for women in STEM fields, based on a metric that includes persistence to graduation and the value of education received. And the UC Davis College of Engineering now has the highest percent of women faculty among the top 50 engineering programs in the United States.
Q. What would be the one piece of advice that you would give to a young woman hoping to pursue an academic career?
A. Developing a strong professional network is key. Collaborations with other faculty will boost your research and educational programs by providing new and exciting directions for your expertise. In addition, building positive relationships with colleagues outside your institution will lead to lectureships, professional service opportunities, and other occasions for enhanced professional visibility.
Q. How do you think the scientific community benefits from the contributions of women in research?
A. Research has an integral role to play in solving many of humanity’s grand challenges. Women bring unique experiences and creative skills to augment the perspective of any research challenge. This enhanced range of perspectives will lead to improved solutions and positive outcomes for society.
Read more stories and learn about our International Women’s Day program here.