Holmes Takes Work to NSF

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Mary Anne Holmes continues to promote women in the sciences through her new role as ADVANCE program director at the National Science Foundation. Read the feature article in UNL Today.

Mary Anne Holmes is a proponent of many things – geoscience, outreach efforts, her students, her colleagues.

But it’s been her work to improve the careers of fellow female scientists that has shaped her own career and research for more than a decade and helped to change the faculty landscape at UNL.

Holmes, a professor of practice of Earth and atmospheric sciences, has taken what she has learned at UNL to the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE office in Washington, D.C. She is one of two directors for the program that seeks to increase the representation and progress of women in academic science and engineering careers. Her yearlong NSF rotation began Jan. 6.

ADVANCE got off the ground in 2001, when it was apparent that despite the success of women receiving advanced degrees in science, math and engineering, they were significantly under-represented in the faculty ranks of the nation’s universities. The NSF ADVANCE program has since given more than 200 awards to post-secondary institutions to promote the advancement of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, fields.

Holmes was one of the first grant winners of the fledgling program. She was awarded a three-year Leadership Award in 2001, which allowed her to uncover the most common barriers to women’s success in her field: family issues, uncertain job markets and concerns with graduate advisors.

Having served in the Association for Women Geoscientists and eventually rising to president of the organization, Holmes had become well versed in the obstacles women were facing.

“It didn’t seem to have anything to do with their abilities or work ethic. It was a lack of access to information about opportunities and a lack of mentorship and advocacy,” Holmes said.

With encouragement from a colleague and fellow geoscientist at Wesleyan University, Holmes parlayed that anecdotal experience into her proposal. But after earning funding, she realized her weakness: What does a geoscientist know about changing hearts and minds?

Holmes soon brought scientists from many disciplines onto the research team. She said having an interdisciplinary group has been key to the ADVANCE program’s work at UNL.

Holmes continued her work with ADVANCE when she received a second grant in 2007. This time, she focused her attention on building a community of female geoscientists and creating opportunities for their professional development. With the grant funds, UNL hosted writing retreats that gave women scientists the time and guidance they needed to do research and complete manuscripts. Holmes also organized professional development workshops for geoscience faculty and workshops for geoscience department chairs across the United States.

Holmes’ experiences on those ADVANCE projects demonstrated an opportunity for UNL to better itself as an institution. In 2008, UNL received an ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Award. Holmes worked on a team of six co-principal investigators and one principal investigator to bring the ADVANCE program to campus and raise the number of female faculty in the STEM fields.

The $3.8 million grant project had some very specific goals, including an increase in the number of female faculty in the STEM fields and placing female faculty in leadership roles. As director of the Nebraska ADVANCE office, Holmes and the ADVANCE team were able to see those goals to fruition.

“We were hoping to hire eight women in this manner and we hired 14,” Holmes said. “So, we greatly exceeded our goals. It showed us, first of all, that there’s a huge demand, and secondly, that we had mechanisms that would address the demand.”

Julia McQuillan, chair and professor of sociology, worked closely with Holmes as a co-principal investigator on the Institutional Transformation Award. Their efforts earned them the Chancellor’s Outstanding Contribution Award last year.

McQuillan said Holmes’ skills were vital to the program’s success.

“Mary Anne turned challenges that she had as a woman in a male-dominated field into an opportunity for a new line of research and skill building,” McQuillan said. “She did research on barriers to the success of women in STEM fields; therefore, she brought a great deal of experience and insights to the challenges of women in STEM.”

UNL’s ADVANCE program led efforts to revise the work-life balance policies throughout the whole system and also led to an examination of UNL’s faculty search process, which in turn increased the number of women in applicant pools. Other changes on campus included helping faculty overcome the challenges of a “dual-career” household in which both heads of the household work full-time.

Holmes is working with a research team, which includes McQuillan, to publish the findings from UNL’s ADVANCE program. She has also been a sought-after consultant for grants around the country.

“She led our team for five years, consistency that is rare in the ADVANCE World,” McQuillan said.

Holmes said the biggest challenge ahead is promoting the importance of lifelong mentorship – something she said she considers sorely lacking in colleges and universities.

“We focus a lot of attention on the pre-tenure process and getting faculty through promotion and tenure,” she said. “But then there’s another step, going from associate to full professor, and almost no one pays attention to that step.

“We can inform specialists in organizational change that mentorship doesn’t end when someone reaches a certain age or a certain level in their organization. You need advocates and mentors your whole life.”

With her NSF appointment, she said hopes to help more institutions realize the value of putting these kinds of measures – mentorship, changes in the applicant pool process, support for dual-career faculty – in place and that they go beyond helping women.

“The thing is, when we find out things that are barriers to women, they’re usually barriers for men, too,” she said. “So when we address these issues, it ends up being better for all faculty.”

Holmes looks back on more than a decade of work with ADVANCE and said she’s thankful for what it aims to do.

“Having NSF recognize the problem was important,” Holmes said. “I would say I had a passion before that first grant, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it. The ADVANCE program gave me the opportunity to help.”

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Mary Anne Holmes