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Leading by Example

StudentsAt Tufts School of Engineering, support for female faculty members and students starts at the top.


Dean Linda Abriola, head of the School of Engineering at Tufts University, remembers what it's like to go it alone. "When I was a student in engineering, I had no female professors at all and no female classmates," she says of her experience in college and graduate school. "I didn't have any examples of successful women to model my career after."

It's a problem that may be difficult for female engineering students at Tufts to imagine.

With Abriola at the helm, several females in top leadership positions and an engineering faculty that boasts a higher percentage of female professors and assistant professors than the national average, there is no lack of female role models and mentors at the School of Engineering.

"Students sit in their classes and see women teaching them," says Margery Davies, director of the Office of Diversity Education and Development for the School of Engineering and the School of Arts and Sciences. "It's a pretty simple and direct message."

Students

Engineering graduate student Sara Brandt, a teaching assistant in an introductory computer-aided design (CAD) course, talks with two freshmen.

Based on the numbers, female engineering students at Tufts appear to be taking that message to heart. Over the past five years, Tufts has granted close to 30 percent of its engineering bachelors degrees to women—a statistic that sets the School of Engineering apart from its peers around the country. By comparison, the national average "hovers at 20 percent," according to Davies.

"We are producing more female graduates at every level than the national average," explains Davies, pointing out that Tufts typically also awards a higher percentage of engineering masters and doctoral degrees to women. Recruiting and retaining females—both students and faculty members—is one of the School of Engineering's strengths, she says.

"We have done really well in attracting females in the science and technology areas," says Abriola, who recently authored a paper, along with Davies, focused on Tufts' success in drawing female students and faculty members to the School of Engineering and giving them the resources they need to thrive.

"Tufts has had a history of female representation at a time when there weren't many women in professional, technical careers," says Abriola.

A 'Collegial' Kind of Place

Irene Georgakoudi, an assistant professor in the department of biomedical engineering, attributes the university's success in this area, in part, to its atmosphere.

"My experience has been that the overall environment is very collegial and friendly," says Georgakoudi, who has been at Tufts for three years. In that time, she adds, she has also developed a valuable network of mentors.

Georgakoudi—whose research focuses on developing ways to better understand the differences between diseased and healthy cells—describes her department chair, David Kaplan, and her colleague Sergio Fantini as "incredible mentors." She has also often turned to Computer Science Department Chair Diane Souvaine and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education for the School of Engineering Kim Knox for advice and guidance.

Georgakoudi and Xylas

Georgakoudi talks with senior biomedical engineering student Joanna Xylas.

"I've found mentors all along," says Georgakoudi, noting that one of her main supporters has been Abriola.

"Dean Abriola has been extremely supportive in terms of applying for grants, showcasing some of my work and helping me think about a combination of educational and research activities that I can get involved in," she says.

Georgakoudi, like many of her Tufts colleagues, has responded by paying it forward—serving as a role model and resource for students who have issues inside and outside of the classroom. "The faculty members, whether they are male or female, seem to truly care about their students," she says.

Supporting Students

The strong relationship between students and faculty is one of the main reasons the School of Engineering has been successful in attracting female students, according to Abriola. At Tufts, female engineering students can look to numerous role models for mentoring, support and encouragement. (continued)

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Profile written by Meghan Mandeville, Tufts Web Communications

Photos by Joanie Tobin, Tufts Photo

This story originally ran online on April 23, 2007.