by Tim Mantoani
When she was in school, “there wasn’t anybody there I aspired to become,” admits Professor Debbie Tahmassebi of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Likewise, her colleague and department chair, Professor Tammy Dwyer, had no female role models in science as an undergraduate. Together, they are actively working to change that state of affairs for their own students. Toward that end, the department was recently awarded a highly prestigious Clare Boothe Luce Professorship, which will fund a new female professor in Chemistry and Biochemistry for five years, beginning in the fall of 2009.Dwyer and Tahmassebi share a common goal with their colleagues in the department to increase the national visibility of their strong undergraduate program.
The Clare Boothe Luce Program, which promotes the advancement of American women in the sciences, engineering and mathematics, is the largest source of private support for women in these fields.
Remarkably, the department secured this award upon its first application. What impressed the committee so much was the department’s skyrocketing number of female majors. “Of our current majors, 52 percent are female, and of our 2009 chemistry graduates, 80 percent are female,” says Tahmassebi.
The committee was also impressed with the number of female role models in the department and campus-wide. “Across the university we have a female president, a female provost and a female department chair,” says Tahmassebi. “Students see about half of their chemistry and biochemistry professors are women — women who are committed to their families,” adds Dwyer. “So they get a good sense that you can become a professional scientist and be active in your family.”
The award will fund a new tenure-track faculty position in the department, and over five years it will pay for her salary, benefits, research and career development. Funded by a USD match to this grant is a new departmental program called “Bridges to Doctoral Institutions,” which will pay for two female students to do summer work at a major research institution.
With this award and other recent grants, the department is on an upward trajectory to increase its visibility nationwide. Since January 2003, the department has raised over $3 million and will soon submit a $1 million grant proposal to Research Corporation that will benefit all of the science departments at USD.
“They’ve been working with us on our five-year plan to consider how we can go from being a well-kept secret, to becoming a nationally renowned Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry,” says Dwyer. “It sounds too pie-in-the-sky to say you can have it all, but we’re finding our way to having it all — for ourselves, for our students, for our institution.”