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Women Power At Bond LSC

Melissa Mitchum, D Cornelison and Cheryl Rosenfeld

Melissa Mitchum, D Cornelison and Cheryl Rosenfeld (from left to right) of Bond Life Sciences Center were promoted to full professor on September 1, 2017.

Three Promoted to Full Professor

By MJ Rogers, Bond LSC

Scientific success largely hinges on research results, and four recent promotions at Bond Life Sciences Center celebrate that achievement.

Cheryl Rosenfeld, D Cornelison and Melissa Mitchum of Bond Life Sciences Center were promoted to full professor as of September 1, while Laurie Erb received a promotion as a non-tenure-track research professor. They are the first female full professors in Bond LSC’s 13-year history.

University of Missouri’s Assistant Vice Chancellor of the Division of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity, Noor Azizan-Gardner, said the promotions made her optimistic.

“Three women all going up to full professor – it’s phenomenal,” she said. “And the fact that they all have labs in Bond LSC makes me deliriously happy. Not just for us and them, but for the women who will be the next generation. The ripple effect is bigger than just the three of them.”

Promotion and tenure at MU follows rigorous guidelines that take teaching, research success and service into account to advance professors through three tiers — from assistant to associate to full professorship — over more than a decade.

But like many technical fields, science lags behind in its proportion of women to men. Growing that diversity is important to the breadth of scientific inquiry. As an advocate of collaboration, the promotion of three women to full professor at Bond LSC hopes to reinforce that diversity.

Cornelison and Mitchum were quick to stress their promotions had nothing to do with their gender, and everything to do with their science.

“It just doesn’t cross my mind,” Mitchum said. “I honestly don’t walk around thinking about gender. I just do the best I can and that’s all I can do.”

Similarly, Cornelison said, “I am not a female scientist. I am a scientist. Period. It should not be a part of the story.”

Rosenfeld, however, is concerned that administrators are not giving women the support necessary to flourish in their careers.

“I work seven days a week and I deserve respect and to be taken seriously on par with my male colleagues,” she said. “I am not doing this as a hobby. This is my passion, and, hopefully in the future, women like myself will be treated equally.”

A Pervasive Problem

A study conducted in 2015 by the Chancellor’s Status of Women Committee and the Status of Women Committee in the College of Arts and Science at MU found that with regard to gender equity on campus, there was no evidence of a systematic pay bias against female faculty. However, it did find that the average salary for female faculty is almost $16,000 (or 15 percent) below the average salary for male faculty and that the colleges with the highest average salaries were predominantly male.

Cornelison, Mitchum and Rosenfeld all believe that female scientists at MU face at least three significant hurdles on their path to full professor: the amount of time it takes compared to their male colleagues, the lack of mentorship, and the high ratio of male full professors compared to female full professors in several departments.

Mitchum stated that there are only two other female full professors — Jeanne Mihail and Michelle Warmund — in the plant sciences department compared to at least 17 males. Rosenfeld and Cornelison had similar ratios in their respective departments.

Recent controversies indicate gender equity is a persistent challenge in the field as a whole.

In 2015, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that when considering requests from prospective students seeking mentoring in the future, the science faculty at research-intensive universities were more likely to hire a male lab manager, mentor him, pay him more and rate him as more competent than a female candidate with the exact same resume. And this year, two senior female scientists sued the prestigious Salk Institute for Biological Studies, alleging pervasive gender discrimination and systematic sexism.

Although female scientists remain underrepresented in many countries, academic journal publisher Elsevier released a report in 2017 that shows improvement. It stated that women’s scholarly authorship increased overall from 30 percent in the late 1990s to 40 percent two decades later. In terms of raw proportions, the percentage of women scientists in the U.S. increased from 31 percent from 1996-2000 to 40 percent from 2011-2015.

Beginning Inspiration

Rosenfeld, Cornelison and Mitchum’s success in the departments of Biomedical Sciences, Biological Sciences and Plant Sciences, respectively, follow several decades of hard work and passion in their fields.

But their interest in science started in unique ways.

“In middle and high school I was always excited about science classes,” said Mitchum. “I liked physics. I liked chemistry. I was lucky to have a science teacher, Patty Gustin, who knew I had an interest in science, saw some potential and encouraged me. She was actually the first person to encourage me to go on to college in science.”

Mitchum went on to get an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She immediately continued her education and received her masters in plant pathology at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and her Ph.D. in plant pathology and biotechnology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Cheryl Rosenfeld’s high school biology teacher, Patricia Murphy, was also the first person to put her on the science track.

“I can still picture her to this day,” Rosenfeld said, smiling. “She gave me a C on my first lab assignment. My friend received a better grade and we did the same work, so I asked her why I got such a low grade. She told me that I was going to be a scientist, that she expected more of me, and to improve my grade she allowed me to help prep the lab experiments.”

Rosenfeld went on to receive a bachelor of science and DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Ph.D. in Animal Sciences and Reproductive Biology from MU.

Cornelison’s path was a bit different. Like many undergraduate scientists, she initially thought she would go to medical school. But during an independent study, she was assigned to a lab doing behavior genetics in mice and fell in love with research.

“Unlike my experience in Chemistry classes, I was now in an environment where I was expected to go and do things nobody had ever done before,” Cornelison said. “And I got to tell people about it. And I got to decide what the next unknown thing I wanted to know was. After that, I had to decide whether to apply to medical school or graduate school because I only had enough money to take the GRE or the MCAT, so I took the GRE. And I am still incredibly grateful for the people who took me into their lab and taught me to love research.”

Cornelison credits that experience with why she enjoys having undergraduates in her lab. To date, over 20 of them have graduated with departmental honors based on their independent research projects.

“If I can give students a taste of what that experience of discovery feels like, I’m happy. It changes your perspective on many things,” she said.

The concept of mentorship is something Rosenfeld, Cornelison and Mitchum all agree is critical for budding scientists, male or female.

Each shared stories about the vast amount of mentors that inspired them and students they still keep in contact with. Mitchum has an especially meaningful relationship with one of her mentors.

“While I was working in a lab as an undergraduate I had the opportunity to interact with a visiting scientist who would work in our lab, Donald Foard, an older gentleman at the time, and he became my mentor,” Mitchum said fondly. “I don’t think I would be where I am today without his mentorship. As an undergraduate, he encouraged me. He believed in me. He inspired me to go to graduate school. And we still keep in contact today. He is 86 years old now and we still write letters back and forth. I recently had the privilege of sending him my promotion letter. The sheer excitement of sharing that promotion with him was incredibly meaningful.”

“Without him believing in me I don’t think I would be sitting here talking to you about this promotion today,” she added. “He believed in me during a time when I didn’t believe in myself.”

Supporting Women in STEM

In an effort to promote mentorship and address female-specific concerns in the STEM fields, such as wage negotiation and salary differences, MU recently started its first Women in STEM group. The group was spearheaded by Rosenfeld and Azizan-Gardner, and had its first meeting in July.

“The issue of mentoring is something that you see everywhere, not just here,” said Azizan-Gardner. “It is a pervasive problem we need to address. And we can do that here at MU and do something that will really benefit everyone.”

Female mentorship is something that Rosenfeld believes is critical for female scientists and she makes an effort to mentor female undergraduate and graduate students.

“When you’re struggling, you often think that there is no way you can do this,” said Rosenfeld. “But if you see someone that looks like you that has succeeded and is teaching you, all the sudden your goal does not seem impossible.”

Mitchum is another strong proponent of mentorship and undergraduate research. She has mentored 26 undergraduate researchers in her lab, and 12 of them went on to graduate school, while many of the rest went to medical school.

“It’s so important for us as mentors, female or male, to believe in and encourage the younger generation,” she said. “I believe in many cases, you just need someone to believe in you and know you can accomplish things. It’s important to have quality in mentorship — investing in students and giving students your time and direct attention.”

Rosenfeld hopes that the Women in STEM group will empower female scientists to be more assertive. She said the first meeting was “eye opening” because many of the participants had similar experiences and it was powerful to hear their frustrations. About 20 women attended the first meeting, and Rosenfeld is confident that number will increase.

Azizan-Gardner believes that Bond LSC has the potential to be a leader in promoting, recruiting and retaining female scientists. And as a result, will encourage more women to go into STEM fields.

“I hope having a strong Women in STEM group will be great recruitment as well for other general faculty to come to MU,” said Azizan-Gardner. “At least that’s my goal, and that’s the area I’m responsible for. And on top of that, I think it will really entice other undergraduate women to go into STEM.”

Article originally published on Decoding Science.