A Recipe For Success in Educating STEM Leaders

Stiffin_Rose MaryGuest blog By Dr. Rose Stiffin, Chairperson, Professor, and Biochemist, Florida Memorial University

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a local science conference. Because it was free, I took my upper level chemistry class. There were only three, so this was not an issue of space, reservations, or anything.

When we arrived, I was glad to see that my students were excited to attend, as this was their first science conference ever, and I was excited because they were. A great day to be had all around, I surmised.

During one of the breaks, an elderly gentleman approached me and introduced himself. Of course, I could not recall his name five minutes later, so there is no way I would remember anything about him now except his age, color, and the words he said to me after introducing himself: “I thought he would be out playing basketball,” indicating the lone young man in my class. The others were young ladies.

Initially, I found his statement amusing, if for no other reason than the young man in question was, in my opinion, short and painfully thin! He did not look particularly athletic to me and I could not imagine him going for a layup or a three-pointer. Then, the true meaning of this supposedly innocuous assumption hit me: my student is black, ergo, he should be out playing a sport. What a leap to make! But that is what this man meant. There were other males there, so it could not have been a place where his gender would have come into question. Could it have possibly been his race? After all, my students and I are part of the vast African Diaspora and the questioner definitely was not.

When I relayed this interchange with my students, they reacted with only vague interest. But I informed them that, because this man’s thinking is not unique, they may face such comments or questions as they travel through life.

One former student obtained a great internship in Texas. He was assigned to do a sophisticated spectral analysis of a molecule. Because his fellow lab worker had never heard of Florida Memorial University, he assumed that the student could not possibly grasp the instrument’s function or data output. He neglected to consider that some of his professors were Drs. Ayivi Huisso, Thomas Snowden, Telahun Desalegne, and me, Dr. Rose Mary Stiffin. I would say our unofficial collective motto is think or sink. The young man did not sink. From that one internship, he got a research paper published with his name as primary author–a distinguishing status that must be earned. He is now an MD-PhD.

When I first started teaching, my one goal was to graduate my freshmen class of science students. After that, I honestly had no thoughts. Just graduate them and see this as a major feat in my life as a so-called role model and mentor. One of the first graduates became a medical doctor. Then, another, and another, and another… In fact, since this first graduate, there have been approximately 95 of them, majoring in (pre) engineering, (pre) nursing, chemistry, or biology who have earned graduate degrees/professional degrees. We have produced engineers, molecular biologists, plant physiologists, dentists, pediatricians, obstetricians, nurses, pharmacists, pharmacologists, chiropractors, and microbiologists working at the CDC.

This means that, on average, we graduate six students yearly who become professionals in their field of endeavor. I’ve built a ‘wall’ upon which I place the names and photographs of these achievers as a testament to future students that ‘if they can, then you can, too.’

Is there a recipe for success? Well, nothing beats hard work, we can all agree on that. Communication helps, not simply with the students, but with other professors as well. If one student is failing physics, but making an A in biology, we discuss the professor’s practices, teaching methods, and how the student is assessed. Rarely has there been a student to fail one class and pass another with an A. Thus, we have continuity in addition to frank discussions. We do focused activities–reading and discussing science, and exploring the applicability of the work–that other universities deem ‘too difficult’ for the students and beyond their capabilities.

One of our former students visited last week. He is doing great. Married, a father, and a much sought-after consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. “To what do you owe your success?” I asked, not considering what his answer would be, just being naturally curious. He said that it was the science and theory he learned here, the ability to think critically, that we instilled in him here. Those were the qualities that propelled him to success. In one form or another, many of the professors here have heard the same words.

Oh, and that young man who should have been “out playing basketball?” He is a well-respected physician. The other two students? They both have their PhDs and are working in STEM/health areas–actively making a difference in the health of thousands.

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Happy Mother’s Day-Celebrating the Love and Hidden Workloads of so Many Women

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For most individuals, their mothers are, or have been, a special influence in their lives and contribute to their lifelong sense of love, compassion, and confidence. The love of a mother can encircle you like an invisible force field. Yet, often, mothers supply this nexus of love and support while juggling careers, personal and conflicting aspirations, and hidden familial workloads. This Mother’s Day, let us acknowledge the special place that mothers occupy in our lives and the complexity of their lives that is frequently hidden from our view.

Some time ago, a colleague and I conducted research on the hidden workloads of women in higher education. Our research was presented at conferences, and it was eventually published in an international publication focusing on women.

Basically, we surveyed and interviewed about 100 women in higher education from the rank of assistant professor to Vice President who worked at a highly-ranked and research, regional university. After we entered the 21st century, it seemed like a good time to take a pulse, to seek some perspectives, of women. We found that women reported a myriad of experiences that appeared to be unique to them. They reported having their voices ignored in departmental meetings; feeling pressured to produce research while balancing other familial responsibilities; and struggling to fit their contributions into an educational reward structure not normed on women.

Well, more than a decade has passed since we reported our findings. There have been many changes since then—including that a woman, and a mother, is now running for President of the United States. However, there is still much work to do. Our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters still earned only 77 cents for every dollar that men earned in 2012, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.  Further, some believe that many workplaces could be further enhanced by the voices and leadership styles of more women.

So, this Mother’s Day, as we celebrate our mothers with flowers, fine jewelry, and special dinners, let us lean in and take a good look at the lives, perspectives, aspirations, and hidden workloads of these women.

May the lives and contributions of mothers to humanity continue to be enhanced and appreciated!

Americans: We Are Strengthened by Our Diverse Perspectives

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Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, President, Florida Memorial University

Most Americans have been involved in, or heard, conversations about diversity. The topics swirling around the concepts of diversity are broad and deep. Diversity, demographically speaking, describes a range of variables employed to describe human beings—and if you attempt to list the distinct characteristics, you will probably omit a few descriptors.

Sometimes, unfortunately, we focus on the differences when reporting statistically on academic achievement, family earning, health, and so forth. Admittedly, we need to be informed about how our policies, tax dollars, and governmental interventions affect the majority of Americans and citizens with specific characteristics. Sometimes, however, segmenting our population into diverse groups can be utilized too peremptorily to imply hierarchical ranking. However, measuring some outcomes related to specific human variables can be helpful in promoting the attainment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all—as proclaimed as self-evident in our Declaration of Independence.

Like many other Americans, my concept of diversity has also been expanding as I interact with persons who share different characteristics. I recall when I served in academic affairs at a regional institution that enrolled, made accommodations for, and graduated students with characteristics often referred to as physical disabilities, my personal definition of diversity expanded. What I learned from those students has changed my perspective on diversity and broadened my understanding of courage—for life.

At Florida Memorial University, I have, once again, thought about the concept of diversity. Even though Florida Memorial University is known as a Historically Black College or University, there is a great deal of diversity among students, faculty, and staff that enriches us all. The opportunity to work academically with such a diverse range of faculty encompassing  every descriptor possible is invigorating. Faculty bring perspectives and life experiences from 33 countries including America.  When an idea is introduced at a faculty meeting, for example, we are able to discuss it from experiences that faculty have had from vantage points outside of America, from different disciplines, from family worlds that encompass unique mixtures of world cultures from times chronically different, and from their experiences in a very diverse region of South Florida.

Similarly, in meetings with students it is easy to appreciate the mix of the numerous cultures. Students bring perspectives from many countries including Brazil, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Paraguay, Senegal, Chile, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jamaica, Colombia, and Nigeria.  In many respects, the diverse characteristics of students and faculty at Florida Memorial University under girds everything we do. Now, as we highlight the accomplishments of the faculty, identify our centers of excellence, and enhance our responsiveness to South Florida, we will move forth with a broader understanding of human experiences. This broader understanding will be an asset as we employ our diverse characteristics to prepare our students for a competitive, and very diverse global community.

Leadership Essential-Defining Success for Others


images-3.jpgAs we approach 2016 with hope, resolutions, and anticipation, it might also be helpful to ruminate on some of the evolving concepts of leadership and the lenses they furnish for current and emerging leaders in our society. Often perspectives on leadership held by policy makers coalesce into societal policies, legislation and laws.  Leadership philosophies and styles tend to encompass a variety of perspectives, values, and notions of good lives.

In November 2015, I was honored to give the keynote address at the graduation ceremony of The University of North Carolina Bridges leadership program for women. More than 20 years ago, the UNC Bridges intensive, four-week, leadership program was designed to inform, promote, and support women in leadership roles in higher education.  I particularly enjoyed returning to the (William and Ida) Friday Center in Chapel Hill to interact with women seeking higher education leadership roles because, I had been nurtured, mentored, informed, and furnished leadership opportunities for 14 years in the UNC system.

Moreover, discussing leadership theories continues to fuel my hope that we will eventually develop leaders who will transform our society, so that the majority of Americans will experience a more perfect union. Further, the eroding public confidence in higher education, its value, and its leaders appears to be a microcosm of eroding confidence in political institutions, corporations, and many leaders in America. Probably since I was an English Literature and Language major (decades ago) the words of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel which depict dueling social ills prior to the French Revolution seem to resonate with me as I contemplate 2016:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, were all going direct to Heaven, we were going direct the other way. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

In short, what better time than 2016 to reflect on leadership and co-existing extremes?

The theme of the graduating Bridges class was transformational leadership. Thus, speakers were asked to share experiences, knowledge, and wisdom regarding the concept of transformational leadership.  In a nutshell, the theory of transformational leadership affirms that leaders are more successful when they facilitate the development of leadership qualities in others, when they inspire team leadership to solve problems, and when leaders are introspective about the personal values, assumptions, and paradigms from whence they lead.

In the conversations following the keynote address, the Bridges graduates and I also discussed leadership roles through the lenses of other leadership theories.  In addition to transformational leadership, we agreed that there are a host of leadership theories that attempt to inform, elucidate, and guide those seeking leadership positions in a range of societal institutions.  Some leadership theories that were viewed as illuminating various aspects of leadership include:

Authentic leadership– leaders are usually positive people who lead from honest and ethical foundations and maintain honest relationships with employees or followers.

Servant leadership–leaders desire to serve, the servant’s heart is a fundamental component for this type of leadership. The servant leader puts the needs of others before his/hers and shares power–the pyramid is flipped.

Collaborative leadership–leaders employ teams to lead a hierarchy structure that is less of a pyramid.  Current modes of communication support a more flat organizational structure in which team members learn from each other and work together to solve problems.

While reflecting on transformational leadership, and various other leadership styles, it occurred to me that the first place for an aspiring or current leader to engage in deeper rumination or for meaningful New Year’s resolutions is one’s personal values and definition of success.   In other words, the journey towards a high level leadership position, through it, and after it, begins with a person defining–What does success mean to me?

In higher education, for example, success to a leader could mean 1) advancing knowledge in a discipline, 2) improving the teaching and learning environments, 3) employing big data to truly solve intractable problems, 4) forecasting future opportunities, and/or 5) simply helping others to discover the joy and benefits of a lifetime of learning.  A personal definition of success is not only helpful, but it could lead towards a more fulfilling career, life/work balance, altruistic behavior, and healthy lifestyle.  

Even a cursory view of higher education leadership, political leadership, and corporate leadership would reveal that long term success in a leadership role is more difficult in a world defined, measured, and sometimes quartered by social media that can topple leaders through informed/ill-informed public reactions.  Thus, it is essential for leaders to reflect on a personal definition of success that will help ease some of the unavoidable bumps and turbulence in leadership roles.  It is also important to note that the meaning of success will probably change and evolve over time in a leader’s tenure and lifetime.  

So where does this leave us with our New Year’s resolutions? Hopefully, when making our lists, we will also be cognizant that every individual effort adds to the collective well-being.  When we reflect on what success means to us and our families, we will also be aware that our concepts of good lives will be played out in microcosms that will be expanded in the macrocosms called America and the global village.