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Empowering change in science education

Meet the all-female team leading the natural sciences division at ASU

Six female professors pose for a group photo in an outdoor setting.

From left to right: Donatella Danielli, Tamera Schneider, Meenakshi Wadhwa, Nancy Manley, Patricia Rankin and Tijana Rajh. Photo by Meghan Finnerty

September 27, 2023

The natural sciences division at Arizona State University has an impressive group of chairs and directors who are making waves in the scientific community and in higher education. 

Each member of the group leads one of the division’s six schools and departments, and is tackling a variety of innovative and expansive new directives, from tripling online biology enrollment to helping collect the first rock, soil and atmosphere samples from Mars

In this piece, ASU News interviewed each of them on their life experiences and career successes, their accomplishments and current projects at ASU, and how they serve — both individually and collectively — as female role models in STEM and advocates for inclusion in the sciences.

Donatella Danielli, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences

Portrait of ASU faculty Donatella Danielli.

Donatella Danielli, director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, has led an impressive career in research, teaching and mentorship. Her accolades include several grants from the National Science Foundation and other national organizations, as well as the Extraordinary Faculty Instructor Award for her previous role at Purdue, among other recognitions. 

“I think that one of my career-defining moments was the NSF CAREER Award,” said Danielli, who received the award in 2003. 

“I think it really set a different tone for the trajectory of my career, and especially it gave me the confidence of knowing that my work was appreciated.”

La Matematica, of which Danielli is co-editor-in-chief, is a high-quality mathematics journal set apart by its commitment to inclusivity and to a positive review experience, including a doubly-anonymous review process, meaning that authors and reviewers are anonymous to each other. 

“We’re very proud that we have been among those leading the way,” Danielli said. “We believe that it does make a difference in giving a more equitable outcome to the authors.”

While Danielli is grateful for the awards and recognition she has received and knows they have helped her gain credibility in her field, she noted that the day-to-day notes and emails of gratitude are just as important. 

“I have a folder of emails from students and from junior faculty that I mentored with lines like ‘I didn’t do well in your class, but still you helped me get through it,’” she said. “These kinds of things to me are sometimes even more meaningful.”

Now in her third year at ASU, Danielli’s proudest achievements are focused on educational access and mentorship. They include:

  • Leading an innovative and adaptive new approach to core math curriculum in order to improve student success rates, with pilots launching this fall.

  • Hiring several new teaching faculty to improve student-to-faculty ratios.

  • Seeing a new data science program flourish, with the launch of a fully online version.

  • Expanding the school’s postdoctoral research program.

  • Providing one-on-one mentorship opportunities to postdoctoral scholars and assistant professors.

Coincidentally, Danielli’s team of four associate directors is also all women. In regard to the all-female leadership team within the natural sciences division, she said, “I think that this sends a message that can inspire women to follow their aspirations. This is what is most important to me.

“But we should keep in mind that people are chosen because they are the right person for the job and they happen to be women.”

Nancy Manley, School of Life Sciences

Portrait of ASU faculty Nancy Manley.

“You should always be ambitious for yourself. Don't ever ask permission to do the things that you want to do. Assume that you can do them just like anybody else can do them.”

That’s the advice that Nancy Manley received from her mentor Nancy Hopkins when she was a doctoral student at MIT. 

Manley’s current research focuses on the thymus, the primary organ responsible for the generation of T cells. She is researching the neonatal thymus’ cell production, a process that will be required to understand how to engineer thymus organs for transplant patients. She also serves on the organizing committee for the Global Thymus Network.

Now entering her second year as director of the School of Life Sciences, she is reinventing structures in undergraduate programs, graduate admissions, research groups and more. 

“SOLS started 20 years ago, so the timing is great for us to reimagine ourselves, and that's what we're going to do,” she said.  

The school will be the first at ASU to use an umbrella admissions structure for doctoral candidates, meaning that students will come in with a cohort of colleagues and spend their first year experiencing different labs and research topics before having to commit to one specific program.

“When you are part of a larger cohort, you have a feeling that you're not the only person who's trying to do what you're trying to do,” Manley said. “And it makes a huge difference in your ability to recruit and retain students.”

Manley also runs the only lab in the world that studies the embryonic development of the parathyroid glands, which regulate the body’s calcium levels.

“That's probably the project that has the highest likelihood of leading to a clinical treatment of anything in my whole career,” she said. 

Manley is proud to be a part of a group of female leaders in the natural sciences division.

“Women and girls who want to be scientists can see that it's something that you can do, and that this is a job that you can have and that you can be successful and achieve at a high level,” she said. 

“A cadre of strong and talented women have all achieved this at ASU.”

Tijana Rajh, School of Molecular Sciences

Portrait of ASU faculty Tijana Rajh.

Tijana Rajh, director of the School of Molecular Sciences, joined ASU two years ago ready to lead and encourage students, faculty and staff to explore innovative research and collaboration.

Rajh grew up in the former country of Yugoslavia and spent 25 years at the Argonne National Laboratory, a research facility with the U.S. Department of Energy.

She conducted some of the earliest research on quantum dots, nanoparticles made from semiconducting materials. Her research now focuses on developing self-adapting nanostructures for converting and storing energy as well as a hybrid system for the sensing of biomolecules, including quantum qubits, one of the simplest units in quantum information science.

Over the course of her tenure as director, she has continued the school’s growth of being a top program in chemistry and biochemistry and encouraging the development of faculty and student research.

“I am very passionate about expanding teaching into nontraditional areas,” Rajh said. 

The renovation of the Bateman Physical Sciences Center, which houses the school, allows for the expansion of new educational programs, utilization of state-of-the-art technology and conducting sustainable research experiments. 

Rajh is proud that the school is implementing new programs this year that utilize:

  • Digital laboratories that leverage smart systems, connected devices and cloud capabilities for learning general chemistry principles.

  • An undergraduate research program that incorporates a course-based research experience in biochemistry classes and engages students in the process of scientific discovery. 

  • A platform that expands the school’s research portfolio to incorporate societal factors into research and education.

“We aim to use laboratory renovations to enhance students' training in transferable skills for post-graduate careers. In this new teaching space, student collaboration will be strengthened, and innovative new experiments will be implemented. We are also applying electronic record-keeping to reduce environmental impact and better prepare students for upper-division courses and real-world applications of the skills they learn,” Rajh said.

“The future holds even more potential as we work with other programs at The College and university. Only by combining the expertise of science, business and arts can we tackle global societal challenges.”

Patricia Rankin, Department of Physics

Portrait of ASU faculty Patricia Rankin.

Over the years, Department of Physics Chair Patricia Rankin has explored research interests from particle physics and the symmetries of nature to the very issue of female representation in STEM fields, specifically in leadership positions. Among her notable achievements are an Outstanding Junior Investigator Award from the Department of Energy, A Sloan Fellowship, and being principal investigator on an NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Grant.

“When I started my career in physics, the argument was very much that the lack of women in physics was a lack of role models,” she said.

Then best practices shifted to training women to be better negotiators and networkers, with the idea that they needed to develop skills traditionally seen as masculine in order to achieve career success. But that wasn’t enough either. 

There has been a recent shift from “fixing the women” to looking at systemic barriers such as education and hiring practices and how to improve processes and therefore welcome diverse perspectives, in regard to gender as well as other marginalized groups. 

Rankin emphasized that the current approach moves away from a stereotypical expectation of how women should behave and lead — and the diverse panel of leaders in the division of natural sciences is a great example. 

“By getting a large number of women in leadership roles, there’s actually a variety for us to show a range of styles, so people understand that there is not just one style of leadership that is traditionally feminine or one style of leadership that is masculine,” she said.

“I hope what people are going to start to realize is that there are good ways of leading a unit and ineffective ways of leading a unit. And I think the women who have made it up into leadership roles have generally done so by being more effective rather than less effective.” 

Rankin is most proud of her work at ASU related to public outreach, access to physics education, and the connections between physics and public policy. Accomplishments in these areas include:

  • Developing a Universal Learner Course on physics, energy and the environment that will run again in spring 2024.

  • Encouraging physics graduate students to found an American Physical Society Chapter that has been recognized for its innovation in creating public-facing videos that break down complex scientific topics. 

  • Facilitating ASU’s recent partnership with the Association for Women in Science, which advocates for women in STEM and provides students with free access to career and other professional development resources.

“I started off as a very traditional physicist working at the frontier of how the universe works, and I’ve evolved into a somewhat nontraditional physicist using the techniques of physics to look at societal concerns,” she said. “The chance to work on science literacy and connect physics to current problems that we need to be paying attention to is something that I am really enjoying while it allows me to give back to society.”

Tamera Schneider, Department of Psychology

Portrait of ASU faculty Tamera Schneider.

Tamera Schneider is the most recent addition to the natural sciences leadership team at The College, taking over as the chair of the Department of Psychology in July.

Over the course of her career, she has gained extensive experience in leading university-wide research and brings decades of knowledge in both the psychology and neuroscience fields.

Her research focuses on emotions and psychophysiological stress resilience, the science of persuasion to promote behavioral change and the science of broadening participation, which uncovers barriers for underrepresented groups in STEM fields.

“I always believed that if I just applied myself I could reap the rewards of my efforts and talents. However, having led behavioral research for an NSF ADVANCE Award for almost a decade, I’ve learned substantive research about the accumulation of disadvantages for underrepresented groups in STEM. This was news to me,” Schneider said.

“As a woman leader, and a woman in STEM, I am happy to apply this knowledge and other skills I’ve learned about opening doors for those who often believe the doors are closed.”

As she looks ahead in her role with ASU, she keeps in mind the lessons she’s learned throughout her own career.

Schneider shared that her focus at ASU is enhancing the culture and capacity for collaboration and shared goals to build upon the department’s strengths. To do so, it is important to listen thoughtfully and consider the goals and needs for the organization itself and those involved.

As a leader, Schneider believes it is her responsibility to bring together everyone in the department to have the best understanding and get the most impactful results.

“The most important thing I’ve learned over the course of my career is that there is often overlap in broader goals where people can agree on a path forward,” she said. “That’s what I strive for every person or every team gets a win, and in doing so we all adjust a little to move closer to the  the collective goal.”

Meenakshi Wadhwa, School of Earth and Space Exploration

Portrait of ASU faculty Meenakshi Wadhwa.

Meenakshi Wadhwa’s impressive career has taken her around the world — from studying meteorites in Antarctica and volcanic rocks in Iceland to the formation and evolution of the solar system.

When she joined ASU in 2006, she began as a professor and the director of the Center for Meteorite Studies (now the Buseck Center for Meteorite Studies). The center houses the world’s largest university-based meteorite collection that is used for geological, planetary and space science research at ASU and around the world.

Wadhwa serves as the program scientist for NASA’s Mars Sample Return program, working with scientists and engineers to bring back the first samples from the planet Mars.

She has also been involved with several advisory committees for NASA and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, and served as the president of the Meteoritical Society from 2019 to 2020.

Wadhwa became a member of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, which is one of the highest honors for a scientist. She is one of only 15 members among all of ASU’s active faculty.

In 2019, she began her appointment as the director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration and her focus has been on propelling ASU as a world-leading institution for exploring the Earth and space. She also seeks to bring once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, like the ones she’s experienced, to ASU students.

“I have been fortunate to have had incredible research and collaborative opportunities that, growing up as a young woman in India, I never thought would be even remotely possible for me,” she said.

“This perspective drives my motivations as an academic leader I am always seeking ways to create more and better research and educational opportunities for our students.”

Entering her fifth year as director, Wadhwa is proud of the work the school has done related to online education, virtual-reality learning and leading-edge scientific and space research. Accomplishments in those areas include:

“It’s been amazing to see the evolution of the school and the natural sciences from when I joined ASU over 17 years ago,” she said. “It has been particularly thrilling to see how we are using technology and innovation to advance ASU’s charter of inclusive excellence.”

Lauren Whitby contributed to this story.

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