Graduating CNMS Scholars carry on a commitment to support women in STEM

UMBC has made great strides in increasing its number of women faculty members in STEM through the ADVANCE program. Now, through the CNMS Scholars Program, these women are serving as mentors to the next generation of scientists and engineers committed to the advancement of women in STEM. The CNMS Scholars program is specifically designed to boost the representation of women in STEM fields that haven’t reached gender parity, from physics and bioinformatics to chemical engineering.

This spring, five women will graduate from UMBC as CNMS Scholars, including Olivia Norman ’20, physics, and Jada Damond ’20, chemical engineering. The financial support, mentorship, and sense of community the program offered created an environment that helped them thrive. Importantly, “CNMS Scholars are paired with our most experienced faculty, who go beyond mentoring to act as champions of these promising future leaders,” says Bill LaCourse, dean of the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences (CNMS). 

Norman’s CNMS Scholars mentor was Theodosia Gougousi, professor of physics and a member of UMBC’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) group, affiliated with the ADVANCE program. Damond worked with Jennie Leach, an associate professor of chemical, biochemical, and environmental engineering (CBEE), and a member of UMBC’s 4th ADVANCE cohort.

A nudge in the right direction

The coming weeks will hold excitement for new beginnings and also poignant goodbyes for Olivia Norman, as she prepares to leave UMBC and Maryland. After graduation, she will head to a Ph.D. program in atmospheric science at MIT—a goal realized through research opportunities during her time as a Retriever. 

Norman chose to transfer to UMBC as a sophomore specifically to access UMBC’s unique research opportunities. She has been working with Zhibo Zhang, associate professor of physics, on a project involving “polluted dust”—dust particles mixed with pollutants in the atmosphere. They are working to understand how this dust affects cloud formation and climate.

Lab group meets in a conference room with a large screen displaying satellite data on the wall.
Olivia Norman ’20 (center, rear) participates in a lab group meeting with Zhibo Zhang (far right) and other lab members.

Zhang and Norman have found their work together rewarding. “He always pushes you to ask questions and seek out things that you’re interested in to inform your research, while also helping nudge you in the right direction if you are feeling a little lost,” Norman shares. 

Zhang suggested that Norman join the lab when he noticed her performing exceptionally well in one of his courses. Since then she has made significant contributions to the group’s progress. Now she is participating in the NSF-funded Cyber Training program, which brings together researchers from data science, atmospheric physics, and high-performance computing—a program initially designed for graduate students and early-career faculty.

While it is bittersweet for Zhang to see Norman leave UMBC for her graduate studies, “I have no doubt that Olivia will soon rise as a young star in my field who will lead us to new and exciting scientific discoveries,” he says.

Growth and discovery

CNMS Scholar Jada Damond is also heading to an exceptional Ph.D. program—UMBC’s program in environmental engineering. This offers her a chance to continue research she is committed to moving forward. 

Through the CNMS Scholars program, Damond realized the value of mentorship and a community of support. “I gained a really powerful network, and I learned a lot more about the opportunities the campus has to offer,” she shares. In particular, she’s grateful to her program mentor, Jennie Leach, who has offered her both professional and personal support. 

“Dr. Leach facilitated my transition to UMBC’s Ph.D. program by offering advice about the program and sharing her own experiences with getting a Ph.D.,” Damond says.

Female professor works with a student at a fume hood.
Jennie Leach works with a student in her lab.

“It’s been really fun to know Jada first as a sophomore, new to engineering, and now, as a senior entering graduate school,” Leach says. “I am so excited to witness all the great things she will accomplish in her career ahead.”

Damond looks forward to continuing research with Upal Ghosh, professor of CBEE, and collaborators at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on methods for better measuring mercury levels in water. She’s passionate about the work, she explains, because measuring mercury is a difficult problem and also an important one to solve to protect human health. 

She’s also grateful for Ghosh’s ongoing support. At the numerous national and regional conferences Damond has attended with the lab, “Dr. Ghosh always makes sure to introduce his students to other professionals in the field relevant to the specific work that they do, so I have been able to broaden my network,” she says. 

Young woman in dress clothes speaking at a wine/cheese reception.
Jada Damond ’20, chemical engineering, introduces herself at the CNMS Scholars opening reception in 2017.

On the academic side, Ghosh “is always making sure his students are on track in their studies,” she says. “He was eager to spend time reviewing concepts that were new to me, and would give me resources to point me in the right direction.”

Damond’s goal is to pursue environmental consulting work. She enjoyed tutoring chemical engineering courses and mentoring younger CNMS Scholars so much that she also hopes to find a way to teach throughout her career.

“Tutoring helped to improve my communication skills, as I had to explain concepts in a way that the students would understand, while making sure that they could replicate those explanations,” she says. “It was very rewarding when they left a tutoring session feeling more confident about the subject than they did going in.”

Two male professors in front of lab equipment.
Upal Ghosh (right) and Kevin Sowers, professor of marine biotechnology, at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology.

Building a network

In addition to supporting young women on their way toward success in STEM fields, the CNMS Scholars program is also all about building a community among the scholars. Caitlin Kowalewski, assistant director of undergraduate initiatives in CNMS, coordinates regular activities for the group. This helps the scholars build relationships with each other and with others members of the UMBC community, such as potential research mentors, leading administrators, and alumni in STEM careers.

“I think the main thing I’ve gained from being a CNMS Scholar was this ability to build a network with people in different levels of their education and professional careers, both in and outside of my department,” Norman shares. “That has been a major plus of being in the program.”

Regular lunches and informal activities like craft projects with just the scholars “allowed us to connect with each other over shared experiences,” Damond says. “Caitlin was really good about getting us together,” adds Norman. “It gave us that opportunity to reach out to other people in a low-key setting.”

Representation in STEM

Both Norman and Damond feel strongly that the program has shaped their futures. Damond wasn’t sure about pursuing a Ph.D. until Leach helped her see the career options the degree could offer her, even if academia is not her goal. For Norman, the program has made her want to do more than make advances in atmospheric science.

Three women in dress clothes converse at a reception.
Caitlin Kowalewski, center, at the launch event for the CNMS Scholars program in 2017.

“Being a CNMS Scholar has made me interested in not just doing research, but making sure that where I do research and how I do research is reflective of the scholars program itself,” Norman shares. “I want where I am to have an ongoing conversation about progress being made toward fair representation in STEM.”

Kowalewski is confident Norman and the other scholars will make a difference wherever they go. “I could not be more proud of all that these bright, engaging young women have accomplished during their time at UMBC,” she says. “I have no doubt they will help to pave a stronger path for the advancement of women in STEM in their future careers.”

Additional graduating CNMS Scholars include Ashley Mitchell ’20, biochemistry and molecular biology; Alida Hartwell ’20, bioinformatics and computational biology; and Laina Colony ’20, chemical engineering. To support UMBC’s CNMS Scholars program visit giving.umbc.edu.

Banner image: Olivia Norman ’20 (left of center) relaxes with Zhibo Zhang (center) and other members of the lab group. All photos by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC.