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Elizabeth Barker, a Research Assistant Professor of biomedical engineering, center, demonstrates a synthetic cadaver to a pair of graduate students in the Dougherty Engineering Building. (Photo by Jack Parker/Office of Engineering Communications)

Nearly 20 years ago, UT engineering professor Veerle Keppens found herself in a common career quandary. Her husband, also in the science and engineering field, had a job in the Knoxville area while she was offered a faculty position in Mississippi.

So the couple had a commuter marriage, with Keppens and their baby remaining in Mississippi until she landed a faculty job at UT four years later.

Keppens has risen through the ranks and now serves as head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and director of the Joint Institute for Advanced Materials. She understands the struggle women faculty in STEM can face.

“If you look at the Tickle College of Engineering, you can count the number of full female professors on one hand. Prior to this fall, you didn’t even need your full hand.”

Now Keppens is leading a project that will help UT recruit and retain women faculty in science, engineering, and technology fields and make life and work better for all UT employees.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded UT a three-year grant totaling $714,000 for Adaptions for a Sustainable Climate of Excellence and Diversity (ASCEND), a project that will borrow ideas from NSF ADVANCE programs at other colleges and universities and adapt them to fit UT. It is university’s first ADVANCE award.

Keppens is the principal investigator on the project. Co-principal investigators are Patrick Grzanka, assistant professor of psychology; Erin Hardin, professor and associate head of the Department of Psychology; Joseph Miles, associate professor of psychology; and John Zomchick, vice provost for faculty affairs.

Through a survey and focus groups with women faculty, the investigators found that the groups often experienced stereotyping or discrimination, the feelings of social and professional isolation, and lack of support for work–life integration.

Keppens said the grant includes funds to hire a coordinator, evaluate the programs’ success, and allow project leaders to participate in NSF ADVANCE activities.

ASCEND proposes initiatives to help address each issue:

UT CLIMBS: Climate Improvement Strategies

This initiative will establish a team to coordinate workshops and training activities that build on existing UT efforts to alleviate the feelings of stereotyping and discrimination in daily workplace interactions that the focus groups reported.

Ongoing campus discussions will be held about gender, race, sexuality, disability, and other issues and also establish a group of advocates to be campus change agents.

Also, a newsletter and searchable online database of research on the topic will be created.

UT CONNECTS: Collaborating and Networking Strategies

This initiative will create recruitment teams so prospective women faculty interact with current women faculty during the interview process and encourage women faculty to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects.

A summer program will offer junior faculty a chance to learn more about campus resources, teaching, research, and career development. Another program will help women faculty at the associate professor and full professor ranks who are interested in moving into administrative roles learn more about higher education leadership.

UT WINS: Work–Life Integration

This initiative will develop a dual-career assistance program to help faculty members’ spouses find employment, including nonacademic and off-campus jobs. Also, more information will be shared with faculty about personal, cultural, and recreational opportunities in the community.

A Task Force on Policies and Equity will be developed to review options for finding or creating new child-care options for faculty, formalizing policies related to parental leave, and studying ways to distribute service equitably between men and women.

Amy Blakely (, 865-974-5034)