Arts & Sciences Magazine

Spring 2018

  • Letter from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

    While we have any number of outstanding male faculty members, students, and alumni who deserve recognition and are included, by and large this issue is about the women of the College of Arts and Sciences.

    When I was reading the Fall 2017 issue of our Arts & Sciences magazine, I was struck by how many successful women we had featured in news stories, alumni profiles, and longer features. But honestly, I wasn’t surprised. Since setting a goal in our Strategic Plan to increase the percentage of women faculty we recruit—as well as our commitment to attracting the very best students to our campus and better engaging with our accomplished alumni—I knew that adding more women to our College would result in more achievement.

    So, I asked Julie Keith, our Director of Communications and editor of the magazine, to focus this Spring 2018 magazine entirely on women. While we have any number of outstanding male faculty members, students, and alumni who deserve recognition and are included, by and large this issue is about the women of the College of Arts and Sciences.

    From student scholarship winners, to alumnae who have excelled in their fields, to women faculty members who have built outstanding academic careers in departments and disciplines that have historically been shaped by men, this issue is filled with an array of talented and successful women. As Julie pointed out, we would have to double or triple the number of pages to truly capture all of the stories of the exceptional contributions and leadership of our women colleagues, but this issue provides a window into the much wider world of the achievements of the women of the College of Arts and Sciences.

    I am very proud of what we are doing at UAB, and I attribute a great deal of our success to the talent and dedication of our women colleagues—including our staff. I hope you enjoy this issue and I am confident that you will share my pride in the many contributions of the women of the College of Arts and Sciences at UAB.

    R.E. Palazzo, Dean

  • Events

    Catch up with some of the big events sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, from Homecoming to an exhibit at AEIVA.

    A Festive Fall and a Warm Winter

    Our Fall semester was as busy as ever and was capped off by two signature events: Homecoming Week, and the UAB Marching Blazers trip to the Bahamas Bowl to play alongside the UAB Blazers Football team.

    In the midst of the hectic fall schedule, it's always a joy to be able to come together as a College community to have fun and celebrate another successful semester. And to end the return of the football season with a bowl game—where so many of our students participated as athletes, musicians, auxiliary, and spirit teams—sent us into the holiday season with hearts bursting with pride.

    The 2017 Homecoming theme was Blazers United, and the College had great fun decorating the float and Heritage Hall Building, featuring Senior Associate Dean Dr. Catherine Daniélou as Lady Liberty, and mathematics major Mary Allison Caufield as Uncle Sam. In Nassau, Blaze and the Marching Blazers entertained bowl game attendees.

    In early 2018, we recognized our 17 faculty members who published 18 books in 2017 at the annual One for the Books celebration, where we also honored our three first-ever winners of the Dean's Awards for Excellence in Teaching. It was another outstanding achievement by arts and sciences faculty.

    Faculty authors honored at the One for the Books faculty book party included Dr. Alison Chapman, chair of the Department of English, Dr. Da Yan, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, Dr. Rebecca Bach, professor in the Department of English, and Dr. Kevin McCain, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy. Dr. Sami Raut, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, was one of the first winners of the Dean's Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

    Go Blazers!

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    Ireland Award and AEIVA

    Professor Heith Copes from the Department of Criminal Justice was named the winner of the 2017 Ireland Award for Scholarly Distinction. We celebrated his recognition at a dinner at The Club, where President and Mrs. Watts, along with Dean Palazzo and Mrs. Caroline Ireland, who established the award endowment with her late husband Charles, joined Dr. Copes' colleagues and special guests. The Fall semester also meant the opening of Misremembered, the installation by artist Titus Kaphar, along with Jordan Eagles' Blood Equality exhibit, which also included pieces at the Birmingham Museum of Art and Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

    Dr. Copes' work focuses on individuals who engage in both crime and drug use. Specifically, his research centers on criminal decision-making and narrative sense-making. As the Ireland selection committee noted, he is a leader in the field of narrative criminology.

    Kaphar appropriates different styles and techniques from past periods of art history to create reconstructive historical narratives that address issues of race throughout history. A large part of his AEIVA exhibit featured The Vesper Project, a life-sized, two-room house constructed inside the main gallery.

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  • Building a Legacy

    When UAB broke ground on the new Arts & Sciences Building in September 2017, the excitement was palpable. “There is no doubt that this new building will provide our campus community with a state-of-the-art facility in which they can work and learn,” said Dean Palazzo.

    When UAB broke ground on the new Arts & Sciences Building in September 2017, the excitement was palpable. President Watts, along with the Provost, Vice Presidents, and a number of deans and leadership from UAB Facilities, gathered with College faculty, alumni, and students to celebrate the construction of our newest and most modern campus building. “There is no doubt that this new building will provide our campus community with a state-of-the-art facility in which they can work and learn,” said Dean Palazzo.

    Today, construction is progressing on schedule and on budget, and the L-shaped structure, which will complete the quadrant of academic, recreational, housing, and dining buildings around The Green, is now reaching its second floor. But we need your help to complete the project.

    Your gift to the College of Arts & Sciences Building Fund will help us ensure that we are able to continue to deliver the very best programs to our students, as well as provide the facilities that will attract the very best faculty to UAB.

    As Dean Palazzo has also said, “No public or private university in this day and age could possibly function, let alone thrive, without philanthropic support. For us to provide the quality education and opportunities that we provide for our students, we must have support of donors.”

    We invite you to partner with us. There are a number of naming opportunities within the new College of Arts and Sciences Building to recognize or pay tribute to individuals or companies. In fact, we are proud that some of the earliest gifts to the building have been made by current or retired faculty members, who recognize the value of the project and want to be a part of the legacy of the College.

    In the College of Arts and Sciences, we are proud to tell our prospective and current students that, “Your Place is Here.” And we feel the same way about our alumni and donors, who are so vital to our continued success.

    Be a part of our place-making.

    Find out how you can participate in this landmark building project by visiting

  • AEIVA Receives Significant Gift of Works by David Levinthal

    The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) Permanent Art Collection has received a generous donation of a number of works by David Levinthal, one of the most prolific and acclaimed photographers of his generation.

    The Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) Permanent Art Collection has received a generous donation of a number of works by David Levinthal, one of the most prolific and acclaimed photographers of his generation.

    The gift includes 59 large-format Polaroids by Levinthal given to AEIVA by an anonymous collector. The donation includes images from several series by the artist spanning multiple decades, including "Barbie", "American Beauties", "Blackface", "Wild West", "Mein Kampf", and "Passion".

    “This is a very significant acquisition for AEIVA,” said AEIVA Curator John Fields. “AEIVA already houses many large-format Polaroids by several notable artists. To be able to add such a sizeable number of works by such an important artist greatly enhances the educational value of our collection. It is a remarkable privilege.”

    Considered one of the first postmodern photographers, Levinthal uses toys and miniature figures as subjects for his images. Much of his work questions the role of photography as a reliable presentation of historical fact through intricately restaging significant moments or cultural milestones throughout history. “As children, so much of our early social development occurs through these little melodramas that we act out with our toys,” says Fields.

    An exhibition titled David Levinthal: Playland ran Jan. 8 – March 10, 2018, featuring a number of the donated works as well as six large-format Polaroids from Levinthal’s Baseball series, on loan from a private collection in Birmingham. Levinthal attended the exhibition’s closing reception on March 2 and lectured about his work.

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  • A Legacy of Love

    Jeannie Feldman has established both an award and a scholarship in the Department of History to honor her late husband, Dr. Glenn A. Feldman.

    2017 recipients, Katharine Ambrester and Zoe Zaslawsky, with Jeannie Feldman.Jeannie Feldman has established both an award and a scholarship in the Department of History to honor her late husband, Dr. Glenn A. Feldman.

    To say Dr. Glenn Feldman was beloved would be an understatement. Students, colleagues, family members, friends—regardless of whom you ask, they all have something wonderful to say about him. After his death in October, 2015, Dr. Wayne Flynt, Auburn University Professor Emeritus, who mentored Feldman during his doctoral studies, said, “He was enormously generous and kind. He was always promoting younger people’s careers.”

    Feldman, a professor in the Department of History, was also a prolific author and a renowned scholar of contemporary Southern history, with 11 books to his name, including Politics, Society and the Klan in Alabama: 1915-1949, and Nation Within a Nation: The American South and the Federal Government. “Although Glenn was primarily an historian of the South and of American business, he was knowledgeable and curious of what his colleagues were teaching and researching in completely different areas,” says Dr. John Van Sant, chair of the Department of History. “For example, he often stopped me to ask about Japanese history, or about the latest news from Asia. And he always had a positive attitude, whether mentoring undergraduate and graduate students or discussing an agenda item during a faculty meeting. He always exuded positive energy.”

    Feldman’s widow Jeannie, along with their daughters Hallie and Rebecca, decided to honor his legacy of compassion, joy, and scholarship with two annual funds in the Department of History. The Dr. Glenn A. Feldman Memorial Student Writing Award will be used to recognize deserving undergraduate and graduate students. The Dr. Glenn A. Feldman Memorial Graduate Student Scholarship will be used to provide financial assistance to deserving graduate students.

    “Glenn Feldman could not be quiet,”Jeannie says. “He crusaded for those who didn’t know they deserved to be heard. He was humble about his many accomplishments but quite verbose about injustice and oppression. Glenn told me he knew he’d been given the gift of writing, but he said this gift was not to be used for his own gain; it was a true calling. He left an indelible mark on the world in his writing and scholarship. He just wanted to make a difference. The recipients of these awards have the opportunity to continue this legacy, to be a voice for others, and to make their own difference.”

  • Capturing Success

    Palo Alto Networks' Cyber Competition for High School Students.

    Palo Alto Networks' Cyber Competition for High School Students

    Student support can come in a variety of forms. With a growing vacancy of cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. workforce, Rick Howard, chief security officer at Palo Alto Networks, recognized the need to nurture talent and passion for cybersecurity and digital forensics.

    So, Palo Alto Networks, along with UAB’s Capture the Flag Student Organization in the Department of Criminal Justice, sponsor the annual Blazer42 Capture the Flag Scholarship Competition for qualified high school computer science teams. This year, 10 teams of four 10th-12th grade students participated in a simulated hacking event based on the board game Risk . Individuals in the top three teams were awarded scholarships to attend UAB as freshmen students. The first-place winner of this year’s competition was a team of four students from Tuscaloosa Academy.

  • Paying it Forward

    Alumna Dr. Ana Maria Crawford has created an endowed scholarship to be used to support deserving students based on merit and financial need.

    The Mickey Smith Endowed Scholarship

    Alumna Dr. Ana Maria Crawford has generously created an endowed scholarship in the College of Arts and Sciences to be used to support deserving students based on merit and financial need. Beginning in Fall 2018, the scholarship will be awarded to one student per academic year with a preference for female students pursuing a career in the medical field.

    Dr. Crawford is an anesthesiologist who lives in San Francisco, California. A native of both Southern California and Huntsville, Alabama, she attended UAB where she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology in 1999 and her doctorate in medicine in 2004 from the UAB School of Medicine.

    The scholarship is named for the late Dr. Michael H. “Mickey” Smith, a friend and fellow alumnus from the UAB School of Medicine. Dr. Crawford, who worked several jobs during her time at UAB to pay for tuition and fees, met Dr. Smith at one of those jobs.

    “At a critical time of high academic and financial stress for me, Mickey helped me find scholarship money,” recalls Dr. Crawford. “That assistance was invaluable for me and my career.”

    Years later, Dr. Crawford found out that the scholarship assistance actually came from Dr. Smith and his father. “I have been forever grateful and I always vowed to do the same for another student in need of assistance,” says Dr. Crawford. “It is humbling and an honor for me to give this scholarship his name.”

    Dr. Mickey Smith passed away on January 20, 2018. He was a neuroradiologist in Atlanta, Georgia.

    Dr. Crawford is dedicated to helping deserving students at UAB who aspire to serve as healthcare providers and patient advocates. “Assisting those in financial need would be the greatest gift of all,” she says.

  • They Persisted

    Despite complex social, cultural, and professional trends that keep women from academic careers in the sciences and mathematics, a small percentage of female research faculty stay the course.

    Photos by Steve Wood

    Why do girls lose confidence in their science and math abilities when they reach pre-adolescence? What are the barriers that block women's progress through graduate school? What is it like to be the only woman in your department?

    We asked four of our female faculty members these questions—and more—at a lively and thought-provoking discussion on what it’s like to pursue an academic career in the sciences. Dr. Eugenia Kharlampieva from the Department of Chemistry, Dr. Karolina Mukhtar from the Department of Biology, Dr. Mary Ellen Zvanut from the Department of Physics, and Dr. Tracy Zhang from the Department of Computer Science shared stories of their education, their professional advancement, and their new roles as mentors to female junior faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students. They also offered thoughts on what we can do to ensure that more girls prevail in reaching their goals to be scientists.

    A&S Magazine: Why don’t you start by introducing yourselves?

    Tracy Zhang: I’m Tracy Zhang from the Department of Computer Science. I got my Ph.D. from Florida International University and joined UAB as an assistant professor after that in 2004. I’m a full professor and also the graduate program director in the department.

    My research focus is on multimedia databases and data mining. Anything to do with object detection in videos, or image classification in videos; for example, extracting events from surveillance video, or videos from the biomedical field—I can be of help. I’m originally from China.

    Eugenia Kharlampieva: Hi, I’m Eugenia. I’m originally from Russia and I’m an associate professor of chemistry. I do polymer chemistry, so biomedical applications for polymer materials, for drug delivery, or cell transplantation.

    I came to UAB in 2010, but my career path was not traditional. I was trained as a medicinal chemist in Russia and I worked four or five years in the industry. Then I decided to explore a new direction so I got a master’s in linguistics and cultural communications. [As a chemist], I worked in a company and got promoted to a lead scientist in Russia, but I wanted to explore my new potential as a linguist. I was applying to graduate school in linguistics, and then my master supervisor in organic chemistry called and encouraged me to apply to grad schools in the U.S. I said, “No I’m done with chemistry. I’m going to be a big translator,” but then he convinced me that if I got my chemistry Ph.D. in the U.S., I could practice my English and I would be a more successful interpreter and translator. So, I came to the U.S. in 2010 and fell in love with science and the people and realized I was looking for something interdisciplinary. What I do now is a cross between chemistry, biology, medicine, and engineering, while still doing translation every day. [laughs]

    I received my Ph.D. in polymer chemistry/science at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, and got my post-doc in biomaterials from Georgia Tech. My initial position at UAB was a little unusual: I was an interdisciplinary faculty member supported by Associate Dean for Research Dr. Yogesh Vohra—I was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for two years. I had multiple offers at the time, but I took this job [because it was] interdisciplinary and because of the facilities at UAB. I was tenured in 2015.

    Karolina Mukhtar: I have also been here since 2010 and was also hired as an assistant professor. I’m from Poland and did all of my education up to my master’s in Poland in biology, all in my hometown. I never had to move away for college; I guess that was in my best interest. That was the first place I got interested in plant science, which is my current research area.

    I was pretty traditional except for one gig. Straight from my master’s, I was offered a job in the same academic unit where I did my master’s, which was a cell biology lab. And these were really coveted, full-time, permanent research positions—there’s not really an equivalent in the U.S. But I hated the job: it wasn’t the right place for me, and I started looking for something else pretty quickly, just within the first few months. I applied for an internship at the Polish Academy of Sciences, which is a really good place. Even though my original intention for that internship was to just get out of where I was, it turned out to be life-changing, because I met great people there who showed me what science could be like and got me excited. While I was there, the head informed me of the Max Planck Research Institute, which was opening a [new location] in Germany, so I applied for their Ph.D. program. I got in, and during the interviews I also met my future husband so that was a really quick fix for my whole life. [laughs] I got my Ph.D. in genetics with a focus on plant diseases. After that [my husband and I] were pretty open to going anywhere for post-doc training. That ended up being Duke University for me, and I did that for a little over four years.

    After I finished my post-doc, I decided to have a trial run [on the job market], and I applied for assistant professor positions at four schools. One of them called me back and that was UAB. I’ve only been to one job interview in my life and I hope it stays that way. [laughs] My lab studies plant immune systems and various types of plant stress responses.

    A&S: And Eugenia and Karolina, you both won the National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2014, correct?

    Eugenia: Yes, that’s right.

    Karolina: Yes, with Thamar Solorio and Ragib Hasan.

    Mary Ellen Zvanut: My story's relatively simple. I got my bachelor’s-through-Ph.D. at the same institution up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania at Lehigh University, not far from where I grew up. I did a post-doc at UNC Chapel Hill, then moved on the Naval Research Lab [in Washington, D.C.] before moving to UAB as an assistant professor in 1993 and I've been here ever since.

    I research the materials they make your computers, cell phones, and electronic gadgets out of—and these new lights that are based on LEDs. I focus particularly on defects, which are not necessarily a bad thing. Actually, sometimes you need those defects to make devices work. We look at defects directly as well as their interactions with other materials.

    I’m a full professor, associate chair and the graduate program director in the Department of Physics.

    A&S: What are some of the pros and cons of being a woman in your field? Did you have a mentor who supported you? Have any of you had a negative experience? What are some of your stories?

    Tracy: I have many stories. When I was a Ph.D. student at FIU, I remember one time I had to work into the early morning hours. I came back at 6:00 a.m. and one of my roommates, who was a male student, said, “You just came back from doing homework?” And I said, “Yes, I got the last bug fixed, so now I’m turning in the work to earn bonus points.” And he said, “Computer science isn’t for women.” He didn’t think it was an appropriate lifestyle for women, working late like that. Even my husband, who was also doing his Ph.D. during this time, [has had similar opinions]. We got to know each other when I was working late in the lab.

    Karolina: Us too, there is no time for anything else!


    Tracy: Right. But from the other point of view, I had a male dissertation advisor who was so supportive. He was so strong-minded but in a good way. He never gave up on me, even when I messed up badly, and there was a time early on that I did mess up really badly. He always held the standard high, but he was always extremely supportive. He would always say, “You are capable of doing anything, you can do it.”

    I think the support from your male peers and your male advisors is very important. Because I think oftentimes the things that make girls or women in my field quit is a lack of confidence and support.

    Karolina: I actually had female mentors all along and I just recently realized that. I have to tell you that, when I grew up in Poland I was completely unaware of the concept of gender inequality. My eyes were really opened when I was over 30 [years old] and I was here in the U.S. My boss made a comment, “You as a female may have a better chance of getting a job,” and I honestly had no idea where that was coming from.

    I was always happy being a girl. But I did have an experience in the first lab I worked in, where I got my master’s, being there was a completely different story. Every single person there was female: the boss was female, 100 percent of the lab was female. And this is the other side of the story: Women can be amazing support, but they can also do a lot of damage when they aren’t the role models you need them to be. When I was hired, I was the most junior member of that group. I felt like an outcast, I wasn’t welcome, and they had ways of letting me know that. I was the one teaching late labs or Saturday morning labs because I was single with no children. I was the one going down the street to the deli to get their lunches. And so I realized, this is not the place where I’m getting the support I need, and at this rate it will take me forever to get my Ph.D.

    My Ph.D. boss was female and she was a neutral figure in my life. My post-doc boss was another female and she was definitely a strong supporter and a great role model who helped me navigate through my own personal life choices through my post-doc, so I ended up coming out on the other side without too much damage and building a stronger case for myself. So, I had both: the good, the bad, and the ugly. [laughs]

    We focus on the impact that male advisors have on female students, but being a female advisor is a whole different responsibility that we have toward our female students. Because there was a time in my life I seriously doubted I could stay in [academia] and if it hadn’t been for that internship, I’m not sure I could have stayed much longer.

    Eugenia: Those stories are wonderful! I’ve been lucky. In Russia, we had the same situation as Karolina had, we didn’t feel that gender difference.

    Karolina: It’s cultural.

    Mary Ellen: My impression is there is a big cultural difference in Europe; they don’t have the same kind of social structure we do in this country. My sense always has been, because I’ve interacted with a lot of European men, that it’s very different than with Americans.

    Eugenia: You know, I didn’t think about this. Out of 50 students in my class [in Russia], only three were guys—the rest were girls. And that felt normal because it was chemistry. If you went into physics or computer science, the ratio would be different, but it was never just 5 percent female. By the time we all graduated it was 50/50, male/female across all of the disciplines. But even when I first came to the U.S., I didn’t experience this gender difference because I happened to be in a lab with an assistant professor who was female. In my group, it was five women and only one man. And I was very lucky; she was very supportive. And we are all in that situation now, right? You take students and you are responsible for them. She was supportive at the time and I just thought it was normal.

    When I did my Ph.D. at Georgia Tech, the environment was slightly different. It was engineering and it was more competitive, but again it was 50/50, female/male students.

    When I came to UAB, I was the only female tenure-track professor out of maybe 15 in the department, and then it was an eye-opener. That’s when I realized, “Wow this is different.” But the department was very supportive so I didn’t notice at first; I just was focused on my work, but gradually it dawned on me. And I noticed it with my students. Girls are less confident and that was strange to me; I was always confident. But when I look at my students here, they are more hesitant to make decisions, they are careful in their experiments, they are very critical about what they do—self-critical. It can be a good thing to be careful and critical, but they are often more conservative than the guys. And to me, it seems like when they have a failure, they are much harder on themselves and it’s much harder for them to move on. I just feel like the girls need more encouragement than guys.

    Tracy: I agree. That reminds me of another joke that’s very true and reflective of reality: When you tell a girl she did a good job, she might think, “What did I do wrong?” You should say: You did a great job, not a good job.

    Mary Ellen: It’s interesting listening to the stories because not only are most of them not U.S.-based but they’re also much more recent, so it’s a completely different situation. I had no female mentor, it never occurred to me to have one. In contrast though, the first 12 years of my education my teachers were entirely female: they ran the school, they did everything. So, it didn’t occur to me even when I got to college that [women] couldn’t be in charge of something. Of course you could be in charge of things! Now I went to a heavily male-dominated school, my two best girlfriends were probably “the engineers” as undergraduates…there were probably more, but it was a very, very small percentage. I think out of a class of 100 electrical engineers, maybe five were women. I was a physicist; I may have been the only one, maybe a couple of others.

    It was a very different experience, but I never really had any trouble. But physics is a very different environment: it’s small and maybe more encouraging because we need more physicists and we don’t care if they’re male or female! [laughs] But no, I shouldn’t joke. Women obviously don’t go into physics and there are a lot of stories about women not being encouraged, being told they couldn’t do math or they shouldn’t do math, and those are stories I’ve heard from friends and from students. I never experienced that, but I’m sure it was true and I dare say is probably still true. But I’ve been lucky. My research advisor was a gem to everyone. He had a wife who was a schoolteacher and daughters about my age, so he knew. But there were issues that I didn’t realize as a student, but he took care so that I didn’t realize them. He made sure that I got along.

    A&S: What kinds of issues?

    Mary Ellen: For example, we were going to a conference and remember it so well but I was so oblivious to it at the time. It was driving distance and I was a relatively new student and we were all going as a group. When we got there we had to spend the night, and I appreciate this now: It cost a lot for a hotel room. Should I have one of my own? Because usually everyone shares a room. But apparently this was a big topic of conversation in his house. His wife and daughters were all advocating that I get a separate room even though it cost a lot. But on the other hand, it does mean you’re cut off…a lot happens socially when you’re spending time in situations like that, I probably missed out on some things.

    A&S: Eugenia, you addressed this earlier. What are everyone's perceptions of your female students?

    Mary Ellen: I think the one thing we all have to keep in mind, even about us: we’re here, the graduate students who are here, they are the ones who persisted. Already the female students we see are the people who are willing to go the extra mile and fight the battles. I had a student here, she came from another institution, and she was basically told when you’re married and have kids, you shouldn’t be here. But she continued. It’s probably very challenging to them, but you shouldn’t say those kinds of things to anyone. All the female students I’ve worked with they’re much more aggressive than I would have been.

    Karolina: Biology absolutely doesn’t have a problem with recruitment—more than 50 percent of our graduates are female, which is a national trend. And that’s also true at the master’s level and Ph.D. level, so we have quite a lot of trained female biologists. Our problem is the leaking pipeline. When you move up in the academic setting every step of the way, from post-doc to every level of faculty, we have a huge, precipitous drop in terms of the numbers and we probably get single digits, 10 percent at best, of full professors. So, our challenge isn’t the lack of motivated undergraduates; they start these careers. The problem is the girls flock into biology because they’re told not to go into computer science, chemistry, math, and physics and so biology is the STEM discipline they think they can handle, plus it has the connection to healthcare, which a lot of women would like. So they come to biology and suddenly we are left with this huge population, and they don’t even realize they are bottle-necking by all flocking together. I think biology has a unique problem of being too popular or being seen as easier. I’m an example, because I had to work really, really hard to get my A’s in math and physics, and I did, but it was more effort. I feel like a lot of girls would be like me and go down this path, but not be prepared for when it becomes more difficult down the road.

    What’s also difficult is when these young women enter biology thinking they will go into medicine or nursing or another health profession and they aren’t accepted, then it is often too late for them to adjust into academia, because they don’t have the research experience they need to continue. We could definitely do a better job of mentoring this large female population we have into more diverse careers.

    Eugenia: I feel so jealous of all those students!

    Karolina: Too much is not always a good thing!


    Eugenia: Of course, there are always exceptions. I’ve been here seven years and I would say yes, female students need more encouragement and more motivation. Their standards are often higher, which can actually have a negative impact. Maybe because I’m a female professor they feel they can't disappoint me more than a male student can? Maybe they’re more sensitive to that? I don’t know, I don’t have a controlled experiment. [laughs] But I agree with Karolina that the retention of female professors in our field is much lower than male professors. In fact, look at our department, we have only two tenured or tenure-track female professors.

    Tracy: I’m the only one in my department.

    Mary Ellen: I’m the only one in mine, too.

    Eugenia: The search committees say, “We need to bring more female [applicants]!” But how are you going to do that when you have out of 100 applications only 10 are female?”

    Tracy: Same here. But I don’t ever feel isolated. They asked me, “Will you have a problem being the only woman in this department?” and I said, “No!”

    A&S: What can UAB do to support you and your students? What do we do well, and what can we do better?

    Karolina: I am a mom of two little daughters so I have that insight and they are both elementary-school age right now. One of them came back home from preschool and said she wished she could be an astronaut, but she couldn’t because she was a girl. And that was the point where I knew I had to do something. Because she’s spending days with people who have told her something like that, because I can assure you she hasn’t heard it at home. We started working hard to find summer camps and after-school activities to immerse them in science and programming and basic engineering. It’s not my interest and it may not be theirs either, but it’s just an alternative to cheerleading and gymnastics. We as a female faculty—we all do outreach activities obviously very heavily—but something UAB could probably do better is programs for younger girls.

    Tracy: Right. Some of our faculty offer the Girls Who Code training camp, but that’s purely on a volunteer basis.

    Karolina: So yes, targeting them earlier, because once we already have them as undergrads the damage is often already done. Research shows that it’s during the preteen years that the whole math/physics thing kicks in that, “This is not for me.”

    It’s so frustrating, I see it among my female mentees, there could be a student that could be doing so well for years and is planning on having an academic career, but in the final year she tells me, “It’s actually going to be really hard.” It breaks my heart but they say, “I’ve been looking at you and it looks so hard and I don’t think I can do it.” And I feel like all that I’ve been trying to do is radiate joy and family/work balance and saying, “Hey, you can do it if you want to, you can. It’s doable and let me show you how.” But there is kind of a consensus that after their degree is complete, they would like a job with defined hours—they are really looking for the structure. These are people who are great thinkers, who are really creative, who have great hands for experiments and they could have a great future. They just can’t make it work.

    Tracy: Let me tell you an encouraging story. My first Ph.D. student was a female student, and she was brilliant. She earned every award and I thought she would have a really promising career in academia, but she decided to follow her husband and work in the industry. But I never gave up trying to talk her into an academic career. I finally convinced her last year and she’s now an assistant professor.


    Karolina: How many years did it take?

    Tracy: Well, six or seven.

    Karolina: But you persisted.

    A&S: What else needs to happen?

    Eugenia: There are a lot of things happening, we just need to keep doing them. More scholarships and fellowships for females at all levels. Hiring more female professors: It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And mentoring. It’s a good thing, but we don’t see it enough in STEM. Mentoring junior faculty is important, but especially female faculty. Senior faculty should see this as a privilege not a load. There needs to be a way to take some of the [responsibility] off of senior faculty so we can do more of this. Because it’s a huge responsibility—it’s a service. Mentoring would require departmental support.

    Karolina: We have a mentoring program in Biology and we had one when I came in.

    Mary Ellen: We have mentoring for faculty, but it’s less formal. As associate chair I try to work with new faculty we have coming in and try to get them in the swing of things. I think it has to happen at the department level, because we all do such different things and the departments have a better idea of what people need. But it does add a layer of things to do. And for most of us, you don’t get into a faculty position until you’ve done a post-doc; it’s not like you come out with a bachelor’s degree and you can teach. So many of these faculty have some independence and have some idea of what it will take, but for us in the Department of Physics, it’s helping them to learn how to teach properly—physics is notorious for not training graduate students to be effective teachers—and also research, but it’s mostly informal and at the faculty level.

    Karolina: When I first came here I was the only female faculty member with a lab, and I was also the first faculty member to be pregnant on the job in the history of the department! A lot has changed since then, though. We’ve had a huge influx of younger female faculty members.

    A&S: So there are good signs.

    All: Yes.

    Karolina: We just have to keep working at it.

  • Taking a Leap

    Psychology and Public Administration alumna Ann Bridges Steely says her biggest career risks brought the greatest rewards.

    Psychology and Public Administration alumna Ann Bridges Steely says her biggest career risks brought the greatest rewards.

    Growing up in Homewood, Alabama, as the oldest of three daughters, Ann Bridges Steely never saw herself as terribly adventurous. Though she began her undergraduate studies out of state, she came back to Birmingham and finished at UAB with a bachelor’s in psychology in 1976. She took a job with the Jefferson County Personnel Board right after graduation where she administered testing to various county employees. But she found herself wanting to enhance her skills and knowledge, so she started looking for graduate programs.

    “I really wanted to be certified in testing, so I started looking at programs with different schools of education,” she says. “But about that time, I found out about the new Master's in Public Administration that UAB was offering. It was just starting and I was in the first class to graduate in 1980.”

    In the new MPA program, Steely found herself surrounded by professionals who worked in the public sector and for nonprofits. “They were seasoned professionals who were just waiting for a master’s program like that to come around,” she says. “I learned so much from them about administration, bureaucracy, and holding my own in a male-dominated environment.”

    Steely didn’t know it then, but those lessons would come in handy when she took her first big leap off the professional high dive. She had applied for the White House Internship Program, but during the economic recession of the early 1980s, funding for the program had been cut. Unbeknownst to Ann, however, the list of applicants was circulating through the federal government, including the Air Force.

    “The list landed on the desk of an Air Force Colonel who happened to be from Anniston, Alabama, so he took a liking to me,” Ann says. “Maybe because we were both from Alabama, I don’t know. But he called me and offered me a job with the Air Force. He convinced me to move to San Antonio and make a career.”

    Off She Goes

    Ann packed up her meager belongings, said goodbye to her parents and sisters, and drove herself to San Antonio, a city she’d never even visited. “My parents were crying when I left with my little U-Haul,” she recalls. “It was hard for them to let me go, but they knew I was happy and they knew I had a good job.” It was a bold and brave move for a young woman in her early 20s, who had never considered a civilian military career and who had no experience working for the federal government.

    "I took jobs that other people didn’t want. Those are the kinds of risks that give you the greatest rewards."

    “I hit it at the right time,” she says. “I went in with a master’s degree right when the military was trying to professionalize their work force. Plus, Reagan was president and there was a lot of spending on defense.”

    Ann’s first job allowed her to use her undergraduate and graduate degrees, along with her work experience at the county personnel board. She stayed at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio for 18 years, eventually moving into contract negotiations. “I liked the military environment,” she says. “I liked the structure and the professionalism. As a contract negotiator, I helped define requirements for personnel positions, I solicited proposals, I really negotiated the terms and conditions for all kinds of contracts and services.”

    When she had the opportunity to move to D.C. to work for the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission (FDIC), her husband agreed to follow her. After three years with the FDIC, she moved into defense contracting, working for Raytheon for another six years. “I had such a fulfilling, worthwhile career,” she says. “I loved it, the entire 22 years I was in the Air Force and the Department of Defense. I had never been exposed to the military when I was growing up, but I wish I had been, because for young professionals it’s a wonderful opportunity. Especially if you do any ROTC training, they give you a lot of responsibility at a young age, more than the civilians.”

    Although as a young woman Ann had to stretch herself to take a job with the Air Force in an unfamiliar city, her long and successful career is proof that her bravery paid off. From early professional recognition (BOTTOM RIGHT) to many years of personal travel with her husband Phillip Steely and friends and family (ABOVE), Ann has had a rich life that she attributes in part to her willingness to take risks. Grounding her throughout have been her mother and sisters (TOP RIGHT).

    Rising to the Top

    While Steely didn’t benefit from the acceleration that ROTC training could have given her career, she nevertheless rose quickly through the ranks. And she says much of that had to do with her independence and her willingness to take risks. “It really started with that first decision to take the job with the Air Force,” she says. “I paid my own way to move and I didn’t know a soul in San Antonio. I took jobs that other people didn’t want. Those are the kinds of risks that give you the greatest rewards.”

    As a young woman in a primarily-male work environment, Steely was aware of both her gender and her age as she advanced to higher-level jobs. “I never felt like being a woman—whether in uniform or not—was an issue. I saw plenty of women be successful,” she says. “But at the same time, as I was moving up the ranks, there were no women at the G-13 level, which is mid-management, by the time I got [to that level]. After four years there were a handful, but I was also the youngest to reach the G-15 level, which is equivalent to a colonel. But there were plenty of times when I was young and the only woman in the room and I was asked to get their coffee. I moved up every year for five years and they would look at me and couldn’t believe I was in the position I was in. The bias was there, but I’ve always thought it’s often how you respond to it.”

    How did she respond to the request for coffee? “I would just say, ‘Let me see if I can find someone to do that.’”

    And what did her male superiors do then? ”They would just laugh, maybe a little selfconsciously.”

    Steely continues. “Generally, I felt that if I performed it was okay, but I’m not naïve: I’m aware there was probably harassment. But in my experience, if I held my own and worked hard and did good work, I would be rewarded.”

    “I would always tell people, men or women, when they would ask me about the work/life balance or whether they should move or stay, that there are tradeoffs. Making a decision will close the door on some opportunities, but it will open other doors.” Still, Steely says, she had her moments of self-doubt and worry. “Every time I took a career risk, I would question myself. When I moved from contracting to project management, which was dominated by engineers, I cried, ‘What have I done?’ But that always led me to the most career growth. Not necessarily promotions, but I grew. You learn from every job, even the bad ones.”

    Giving Back

    Steely is in the process of establishing a program in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration that will enable MPA students to have an internship in D.C. “I want to give people the opportunities to do the things they may not have thought of,” she says. “I loved my career with the federal government and want our UAB MPA students to be able to explore the same pathways. It’s important that students feel safe taking that risk.”

    Steely says that, just as she had strong mentors during her career, she wants to be able to play the role of supporter and advisor to younger people entering the professional workforce. “It’s important they realize that you don’t know what you will excel at until you try,” she says. “You can feel that you don’t have control, but you sometimes have more control than you think. You have to really try to learn from what you fail at, and find some mentors. You can never outgrow a mentoring relationship, and you can learn from anybody, just as you can mentor anybody.”

    After a long and successful career, her biggest piece of advice? “There’s a great big world out there. Take a leap off the high dive.”

  • Stellar

    Physics alumna Christina Richey has built a successful career in the competitive, and mostly-male, field of planetary science.

    Growing up in East Liverpool, Ohio, Christina Richey didn't know very many astrophysicists. In her small working-class town on the Ohio River right where Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio meet, she had few models of what a research career could look like. “It was the Appalachia,” she says.

    She liked science, so she majored in physics at nearby Wheeling Jesuit University, graduating in 2004. But it didn’t have the broad science platform of a larger institution. “It was a great school, but it was a small school, and it had limited research opportunities,” she explains. “I found out about the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at UAB my junior year, and so I came to Birmingham and I just fell in love with UAB and the Physics department.”

    The REU program, funded by the National Science Foundation and directed by Associate Dean and Professor of Physics Dr. Yogesh Vohra, provides a 10-week, hands-on research experience for undergraduate students. During the program, participants work in the labs of some of UAB’s best scientists to conduct research that will contribute to the work already being conducted in the labs.

    Launchpad: UAB Physics

    During the REU program, Richey worked with former UAB Physics professor Dr. Perry Gerakines—who is now at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center—to study ice in the outer solar system. “I was doing graduate-level research for an entire summer,” she says. After seeing what the field of astrophysics could offer and knowing she wanted to continue her research, Richey applied to several schools with astronomy programs. But she ultimately decided that UAB was where she wanted to be. “I knew it was what I needed,” she says.

    Richey made the decision to pursue a master's and doctoral degree in physics rather than specialize in planetary science or astronomy.

    And that was in large part because of the relationships and guidance she received from faculty members in the Department of Physics. “A physics degree is flexible and applicable to a number of fields,” she says. “I knew I would be hirable in planetary science, but if that didn’t work out, I could find any number of other jobs with my degree.”

    She says the relationships she built in the department helped her plan her next steps through graduate school and into her career.

    “The general community in the Physics department was just fantastic; everyone was really supportive,” she says. “Right from the beginning of my graduate work, I knew I would do well; it was just the right environment. Dr. [Ryoichi] Kawai was a huge influence on me, and so was Dr. [Renato] Camata, who had a big service aspect to his worldview, and that was so important to me coming from a Jesuit school.”

    As Richey worked through her graduate program, she also came to realize that, just as she didn’t want to limit her degree to astronomy, she also didn’t want to limit her career to laboratory research. “I never wanted to be a tenured professor,” she says. “I was really into project management, government relations, business modeling—all kinds of things that weren’t traditionally ‘physics.’ I had an advisor who really supported my desire to have a non-traditional career, and I am so glad I didn’t have that boxed-in reality that so many graduate students have.”

    UAB Physics faculty members empowered Richey to follow her interests even while working on advanced science. “Dr. David Hilton was another huge influence on my career,” she says. “He was arriving at UAB right when I was finishing my Ph.D. and was very supportive of me from the beginning. I always knew my career path wouldn’t be the same as other people. With faculty help, I was networking at conferences and even taking a business class when it interested me. Dr. Camata said, ‘I feel like you’ll be a senator one day,’ and that really summed up my broad interests. I was not a traditional physics student and UAB really let me pursue the path that was right for me.”

    Early Orbit: Program Officer, NASA Planetary Science Division

    After completing her Ph.D., Richey began an 18-month post-doc at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where she concentrated on astrophysics, specifically how water adheres to dust grains in space, and how that informs our understanding of stars and how they form. “I noticed even then how I wanted to be out of the lab a lot,” she says. “I worked on education and public outreach programs for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the next Hubble and will launch next year. I was the president of the post-doc association. I started blogging; I just got involved in so many things in addition to my research.”

    She got so involved, in fact, that she almost missed her window to find a job with NASA, a dream she had held since her first year in graduate school. “I had told my advisor at UAB that I wanted to be at headquarters in 20 years, but when a funding situation almost shortened my post-doc position, I realized the job opportunities were becoming really slim, really quick. I had missed all of the Congressional deadlines, and I just went to my car and cried. But the next day, I started looking at contractors working with NASA, and I ended up as a contract program officer with Smart Data Solutions, and then with Arctic Slope. Basically, I went from thinking I was going to be unemployed to jumping ahead about 20 years in my career.”

    As a contractor, Richey worked at NASA headquarters for five years and ran programs that distributed grant funding to Principal Investigators at universities across the country. “I wasn’t on the review panel, but I was the person who gathered and organized those panels of experts,” she says. “I was the person the community contacted—the one who handled the administration and business management.”

    Richey says she loved the work, but after five years serving as a Deputy Program Scientist and a Deputy Science Advisor for Research and Analysis (R&A) she says, “There was no place up for me to go, and I wanted to try something different.”

    Current Mission: Senior Scientist, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

    In February 2018, Richey took a position as a Research Technologist and Scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. There, she helps prepare grant proposals, an internal process that is painstaking and multi-layered. “I bring an important perspective to the team as a former contractor at HQ,” she says.

    She’s also a Project Staff Scientist on the Europa “Clipper” Mission, which will send a powerful spacecraft to Jupiter’s moon Europa sometime in the early 2020s to collect data and do extensive research. “Europa is the second-most-likely candidate site for life in our solar system after Earth,” she explains. “It’s covered in an icy shell that’s a few kilometers thick over what planetary scientists think is a liquid ocean. Back at UAB, I worked on ice, and during my post-doc, I worked with a federal relations group trying to get a mission to Europa funded. Add to that my mission experience from HQ…I am responsible for coordinating different groups and different science, so this is a perfect fit for me.”

    Richey says the Clipper will travel in intricate orbits in the Jupiter system, but the orbits have to be carefully calculated since Jupiter’s magnetic particles rain down on everything around it, and would do damage to the Clipper. “It will have to come close to Europa to collect data and then kick back out further into the Jupiter system,” she says.

    Rocket Fuel: Advocacy for Women

    Throughout her academic and professional career, Richey has championed the cause of female scientists in a field that has been notorious for harassment and abuse. “I don’t have a degree in a social science, but over the years I have become something of an expert on this topic, particularly harassment in STEM workplaces," she says. “After an incident when I was a post-doc, I remember really having to think, ‘Is it worth losing my job over this?’ I was so powerless back then, and also so fed up. But I just decided to get up at a women’s lunch—we were always relegated to the women’s lunch—and start a community discussion on the topic in planetary science. I felt like I was screaming into the void then, and occasionally still do. But we’re making progress.”

    Over the years Richey has served as the Chair of the American Astronomical Society's (AAS) Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy from 2015-2017 and was co-Chair of the Division for Planetary Sciences’ Subcommittee on Professional Climate and Culture. She was also a contributor on the Women in Astronomy blog.

    She also helped run a survey and study with three other social scientists and astronomers, including anthropologist Dr. Kate Clancy at the University of Illinois, to explore how hostile the work environment was in planetary science and astrophysics. “Not surprisingly it’s bad, really bad. 39 percent of respondents said they were verbally harassed, and 25 percent said they felt unsafe in the workplace because of their gender.” Her work led to a Career Service Award from the AAS Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) (“I can say I’ve won the same award as Carl Sagan,” she says proudly), which Richey says she accepted only if the DPS would agree to let her make a presentation on the prize stage. DPS agreed, but then the story about harassment charges leveled against renowned University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy broke in national media. The Marcy story exposed more of the harassment in the field of astronomy and planetary science than any single ‘harassment 101’ speech by Richey would.

    “So, I ended up getting very personal with the crowd, in addition to showing the data”, she says. “A lot of men just didn’t know these things were happening around them. People only knew about a few instances anecdotally, that’s why the study data was so important. It’s hard to ignore when you start to realize these numbers are the same people sitting in the room with you.”

    Today, as the country continues to grapple with these issues after the #MeToo movement exploded into the cultural consciousness, Richey says she’s encouraged.

    “We’re making progress. We have to allow the system to fill with diversity. We have to welcome these young people into the sciences who are coming in with their eyes open. They’re less tolerant than we were; they’re getting proper harassment and bystander training. And that’s occurring more now because more women are in positions of power. Too many times I’m the only woman in a room, or my black colleague is the only non-white person in the room. But that game is changing now and it needs to continue to improve.”

    Even the Hidden Figures movie about black women working as mathematical “computers” at NASA during the Apollo missions of the 1960s helped make an impact. “It was important because it made the conversation about women and gender inequity popular. I saw one of my heroes in Katherine Johnson on the stage at the Academy Awards and cried at realizing just how big that moment was for my field, and for women of color in STEM.” she says.

    Richey, who received a Trailblazing Alumni Award from the College in 2016 and a Rising Star Award from the National Alumni Society in 2017, loves UAB and sees only potential for her alma mater. “I see a world of opportunity for UAB. It is the capital of the economy for Alabama and its research is world-class. My hope for UAB is that it would embrace its opportunities and run with it.”

    She also has hopes for her colleagues in planetary science as they continue to advocate for safe and supportive work environments for their peers. “If there’s an opportunity for us to be the standard of excellence in this, why wouldn’t we?”

  • Across the Spectrum

    Four female faculty members in the Department of Psychology study and treat Autism Spectrum Disorder.

    Four female faculty members in the Department of Psychology study and treat Autism Spectrum Disorder

    Photos by Steve Wood.

    Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is the term that is used to describe a wide range of developmental disorders, now including Autistic Syndrome and Asperger’s Syndrome, and diagnosis rates have risen steadily in the U.S. since researchers first began monitoring ASD nearly 20 years ago.

    In their 2014 report, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. have autism, with a gender breakdown of 1 in 42 for boys and 1 in 189 for girls—or about five boys for every girl. That is a 30 percent increase over the prior report from 2008 and more than double the 2000 rate of 1 in 150.

    Although many people worry about an “epidemic” of autism, the increase in rates may be attributed to our growing awareness of autism as well as changes to the criteria used to diagnose ASD. Regardless, it is a reality for many Alabama families who are motivated to find the right care for their children.

    Several faculty members in the Department of Psychology study child and adolescent developmental disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder. And four of those faculty members happen to be female: Dr. Kristi Guest, Dr. Maria Hopkins, Dr. Sarah O’Kelley, and Dr. Laura Stoppelbein. While they all have different concentrations, they have many years of experience in the field. Their profiles offer fascinating insights into their work, the ASD interdisciplinary research platform at UAB, and what they have learned about the disorder over the course of their careers.

    Dr. Sarah O'Kelley, Assistant Professor

    • Director of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) clinic at UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics
    • Training Director of UAB Maternal and Child Health Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND)
    • Associate Director for Training for the UAB University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD)
    • Secondary appointment, Department of Pediatrics, UAB School of Medicine

    When and why did you come to UAB?

    I came to UAB in Fall 2005 after matching as a clinical psychology predoctoral intern in the UAB Psychology Internship Consortium, and my primary placement was at Civitan-Sparks Clinics. This internship was my top choice because of the unique exposure to broad clinical services with individuals with developmental disabilities, as well as a strong program in Autism Spectrum Disorders. I stayed at Sparks for my postdoctoral fellowship and then was hired as a clinical psychologist in 2009. My faculty appointment in the Department of Psychology came in 2011.

    What kind of research do you do, and how does your research impact our understanding/ treatment of ASD?

    I have nearly 20 years of research and clinical experience with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. My research interests and areas of expertise include cognitive and behavioral characteristics of individuals with ASD (previous collaborative and independent studies have included evaluating implicit learning, central coherence, and theory-of-mind paradigms), screening and early identification (i.e., evaluating validity of screening tools), sibling and family functioning (i.e., the broader autism characteristics and behavioral difficulties in siblings of children with ASD), group social skills interventions, and issues across the lifespan for individuals with ASD. I actively collaborate with investigators on campus and across the country on funded research projects and co-direct an ASD research group at UAB that involves multiple studies evaluating clinical data on children referred for ASD assessment.

    Do you see patients/work in a clinical setting? If so, what is the purpose of those interactions/ assessments and treatments?

    I am a licensed clinical psychologist in Alabama. My clinical responsibilities are within two separate ASD-focused clinics at Civitan-Sparks Clinics, where I complete an average of 75 evaluations per year and supervise or provide services to approximately 15 therapy patients per year (long term, individual or group) in addition to school consultations and technical assistance. I have been specifically requested by families and/or schools to provide independent evaluations and behavioral consultations for children in the public schools. I also established a social skills program utilizing the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®) at Civitan-Sparks Clinics, which was developed at UCLA.

    Most of the children and teens I see for evaluation are suspected of having ASD so I, along with our interdisciplinary team, conduct the gold- standard assessments to guide this diagnosis. We provide feedback and recommendations to the family to help them obtain services and identify resources in their home communities, which will support improved skills and behaviors and independence as they grow. Most of the families come from all over the state (and surrounding states), so it is not practical for them to return to us for treatment.

    I do work with and supervise trainees providing individual therapy, usually to address anxiety and other emotion regulation and to understand how their symptoms of ASD may be supported best in the home, school, and community settings. The PEERS® program is a group intervention for teens or young adults focused on building and developing social interaction skills that promote closer relationships with same-aged peers and increase the time spent with friends.

    Over the years that you have been researching ASD, what have you learned about the nature of these disorders?

    Through my research and clinical work, my understanding of ASD has changed significantly. ASD presents in so many different ways and changes throughout a person’s lifespan. Although there can be some symptoms that are very limiting (e.g., never developing speech in some individuals, significant self-injurious behaviors or significant adaptive skills delays), I have come to view ASD as another aspect of diversity, specifically neurodiversity. While there are some things we often identify or describe as “deficits” in ASD, there are many ways that individuals with ASD have advantages over those of us without ASD. This has absolutely changed my approach to working with families over the years.

    "I have come to view ASD as another aspect of neurodiversity. While there are some things we often identify or describe as “deficits” in ASD, there are many ways that individuals with ASD have advantages over those of us without ASD."

    What is happening developmentally in the brain to a child who has a spectrum disorder? Can you describe how their brains may work differently than those of us who don’t have an ASD diagnosis?

    I often explain to families that the brains of individuals with ASD aren’t wrong, they are just wired differently, which leads to the different ways of interpreting and responding to the world. For example, they may use a different area of the brain to think about a specific problem or challenge, and this may take some longer than people without ASD, but the end result is similar or sometimes superior (or faster). Much of the research on brain development suggest a different course and pattern of development that may begin prenatally, that sometimes results in too many or too few neurons in certain parts of the brain, which leads to different functioning.

    What role do stress and anxiety play in the individuals with ASD? What about the impact of stress on families?

    Anxiety is a common co-occurrence in individuals with ASD. Some of the repetitive or ritualistic behaviors may have an underlying anxious component, and anxiety has been implicated in many of the difficulties that individuals with ASD experience (e.g., feeding, toileting in young children, social difficulties). In addition, many individuals with ASD also having symptoms that result in a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder (e.g., generalized anxiety, social phobia, specific phobia).

    Research has also suggested that families of individuals with ASD experience significant and unique stress, even in comparison to families of individuals with other significant, chronic illnesses. Much of this is due to the misunderstanding of the diagnosis and lack of support and resources for families. There is often a significant financial burden to families, which is compounded when one of the parents feels they have to stop working to provide the care and/or transportation to services their child needs. This is one of the things that the Alabama Regional Autism Networks (RAN), including the one at UAB housed at Civitan-Sparks, is trying to improve for families.

    What do you anticipate for the future of research and treatment for ASD?

    Research will continue to focus on contributions to the development of ASD (e.g., genetics) and how it presents differently across individuals. My hope is that intervention research will continue to identify evidence-based practice for individuals across the lifespan and the full range of the autism spectrum. I do think that this will lead to better acceptance and understanding. Autism awareness has come a long way in the last 10 years or so, but there is still much to do in terms of fully including and accepting individuals with ASD in their home communities, and particularly as they exit school-based services, enter the workforce, and seek to live independently.

    How is UAB uniquely positioned to advance our understanding and treatment of ASD?

    UAB has an incredible core of researchers and clinicians who are not only uniquely trained and knowledgeable about the diagnosis but also who are extremely passionate about the population they work with. UAB has great community and state connections that have potential to impact individuals, families, and systems important to improved support, understanding, independence, and satisfaction for all involved.

    Dr. Maria Hopkins, Associate Professor

    • Director of Undergraduate Programs, Department of Psychology
    • Faculty Advisor, Psi Chi Psychology Honor Society

    When and why did you come to UAB?

    I have been a faculty member in the department since 2007, although I originally came to UAB as an international exchange student. As one of the largest research institutions in the southeast, UAB was in my list of top schools when I was in Sweden and was exploring colleges in the U.S. UAB provides a world- class education and opportunities for multidisciplinary collaborations not found elsewhere in the state.

    What kind of research do you do? How does your research impact our understanding/ treatment of ASD?

    My research is focused on social development in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I am particularly interested in issues of emotion recognition and social cognition, as well as technologies designed to assist children with these difficulties. My early research directly addressed emotional development in children with ASD and other developmental disorders. These projects found that ASD children had difficulties recognizing emotions in others, particularly from the eye region of the face. Given these findings, I collaborated with Drs. Frank Amthor and Fred Biasini in the Department of Psychology and developed a computerized gaming platform designed to teach specific skills such as joint attention, face processing, and facial recognition. We documented the effectiveness of this computer-based intervention for ASD children in a series of studies.

    My most recent work involves a social robot for children with autism. The robot, Socially Animated Machine (SAM), is designed to teach social skills such as emotion recognition and identification. Our lab research shows that children with ASD enjoy and are motivated by interventions using technology. This is particularly important for children with ASD who often have difficulty with attention and motivation.

    Over the years that you have been researching ASD, what have you learned about the nature of these disorders?

    The increase in reported prevalence and overall awareness has brought about a significant expansion in the field of autism research. We are starting to get a much better picture of what this disorder is and the extent of its complexity. We now know there is not one autism but rather a spectrum of disorders that have different causes and different manifestations.

    What is happening developmentally in the brain to a child who has a spectrum disorder? Can you describe how their brains may work differently than those of us who don’t have an ASD diagnosis?

    We know that autism is a highly heritable neurodevelopmental disorder. But while research is focusing very heavily on the genetic basis for autism, we have not yet identified either the specific genetic sites or the mechanisms of effect. Imaging studies of people with ASD have found differences in the development of several regions of the brain. Studies suggest that ASD could be a result of disruptions in normal brain growth very early in development. These disruptions may be the result of defects in genes that control brain development and regulate how brain cells communicate with each other.

    "Just two decades ago, autism was a mysterious and somewhat obscure disorder, commonly associated with savants. Today, thanks to awareness and advocacy efforts, people have a much better understanding of autism."

    What role do stress and anxiety play in individuals with ASD? What about the impact of stress on families?

    Parents of children with ASD score higher on levels of stress than other groups of parents. The daily challenges of caring for the child are endless and affect all aspects of the family’s mental health and ability to manage the needs of the child.

    What do you anticipate for the future of research and treatment for ASD?

    The past few years have witnessed breakthroughs in the understanding of ASD. However, the increase in reported prevalence highlight the need for continued efforts to translate research discoveries into effective interventions. Much treatment research is now heading toward understanding the variables that affect treatment response and predictors of treatment outcome, and using this information to help tailor treatments for individual children. This should lead to an overall higher positive treatment response across all children with autism.

    Just two decades ago, autism was a mysterious and somewhat obscure disorder, commonly associated with savants. Today, thanks to awareness and advocacy efforts, people have a much better understanding of autism. However, many people still conceptualize autism as a disorder where the child sits in a corner rocking or banging his head. I think recognition and appreciation of the much more common lesser forms of the disorder is still lacking.

    There is a need to provide support for individuals with ASD to successfully transition into adulthood and become valued and valuable members of their communities, such as increased vocational and post-secondary educational support for young adults with autism and expanding job opportunities.

    How is UAB uniquely positioned to advance our understanding and treatment of ASD?

    As a world-renowned research institution, UAB allows for multidisciplinary collaborations to further enhance our understanding of ASD. In order to understand this multifaceted disorder, we need to engage people across disciplines such as geneticists, molecular scientists, child psychologists, neuroscientists, and brain imaging researchers. We need a comprehensive approach in understanding the complexity of the disorder. There is a remarkable amount of expertise here, which makes UAB uniquely positioned to advance our understanding and treatment of ASD.

    Dr. Kristi Guest, Assistant Professor

    • Disabilities Services Coordinator for the UAB Early Head Start Program
    • Research Coordinator for the UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics and the UAB Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND)
    • Executive Board Member, Central Alabama Early Intervention Council
    • Secondary Appointment, Assistant Professor, Department of Neurobiology, UAB School of Medicine

    When and why did you come to UAB?

    I received my Bachelor of Science degree in psychology with a minor in chemistry from UAB, and I remained here to complete my Ph.D. in developmental psychology. My doctoral work involved three years of a psychology trainee fellowship through the Maternal and Child Health Bureau’s Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) with concentration in the areas of cognitive, adaptive, and behavioral assessments of children. A post-doctoral fellowship at the Civitan International Research Center, Sparks Center for Learning and Developmental Disabilities completed my training.

    After a few years as a coordinator and program administrator, I was promoted to assistant professor appointment in the Department of Neurobiology in the School of Medicine in 2003 and then joined the faculty in the Department of Psychology as an assistant professor in 2007.

    What kind of research do you do? How does your research impact our understanding/treatment of ASD?

    Throughout my career as a developmental psychologist, I have worked as a Co-Investigator on federally-funded projects focused on providing clinical services to multiple vulnerable populations of children, including children and their families living in poverty, children with disabilities, children at risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), children at risk for abuse and neglect, and children of adolescent mothers. Overall, the themes of my research within these at-risk populations have been to explore the clinical presentation of children referred for an ASD assessment at the UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics/LEND program, the effectiveness of screening measures in discerning ASD from other developmental delays or disorders, and the behavioral characteristics and development of individuals with the rare genetic syndrome Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome (PTHS), to differentiate the clinical presentation from that of other developmental disabilities. Research to better understand the clinical presentations and development of individuals with ASD or similar symptoms is important to guide more informed recommendations for needed services and intervention.

    "The collaboration among researchers, clinicians, and educators across disciplines, departments, and schools is what uniquely positions UAB to advance our understanding of ASD."

    Do you see patients/work in a clinical setting? If so, what is the purpose of those interactions/ assessments and treatments?

    My career passion has been to serve children with disabilities and their families, to form partnerships with families and children to enhance developmental outcomes for children, and to promote the well-being of children and families. My education as a developmental psychologist and my clinical expertise has allowed me to fulfill this aspiration for the last 18 years.

    As a clinician, my service is concentrated in providing intensive intervention services for young children and their families who are low-income and service coordination for children with disabilities through the UAB Early Head Start Program as well as providing diagnostic evaluations of children presenting with symptoms of ASD with the UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics. Civitan- Sparks Clinics are a fundamental part of the University Centers for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) and the Maternal and Child Health Bureau’s Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) programs. Within these programs, my clinical responsibilities include providing intensive and comprehensive intervention services for young children, disability services management, comprehensive health services, program management, clinical diagnostic evaluations, and clinical training and mentorship.

    In my clinical roles, ultimately I strive to improve developmental trajectories for children; to increase family knowledge about child development, diagnoses, and recommendations for services for children with disabilities; and to enhance the quality of life of children and families while concurrently providing clinical training for future leaders specializing in serving individuals with disabilities.

    How is UAB uniquely positioned to advance our understanding and treatment of ASD?

    The UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics really exemplify how UAB is positioned to advance the treatment of ASD. Since the UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics are home to the UCEDD and LEND training programs, a core responsibility that faculty provide through clinic activities is instructing and guiding graduate students and interns in the area of neurodevelopmental disabilities to become future leaders in the field. Our Maternal and Child Health Bureau’s LEND role is to impart knowledge in the field of development and disabilities through exemplary clinical service and education. Our clinical mentoring of graduate students on evaluation and diagnosis of ASD as well as research on developmental disabilities through the LEND training program at UAB have the ultimate outcome of building service delivery systems for individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities by equipping new leaders with clinical competency and leadership abilities. UAB is a comprehensive university that is nationally and internationally respected in regard to our research, education, and clinical programs. UAB consistently ranks in the top 25 nationally with regards to funding from the National Institutes of Health. Additionally, UAB is regularly ranked as one of the best medical schools in the U.S. Within the College of Arts and Sciences in the Department of Psychology, we offer graduate training programs in the areas of Lifespan Developmental Psychology, Medical/Clinical Psychology, and Behavioral Neuroscience; a prominent strength of UAB programs is that they are interdisciplinary and collaborative across departments and schools. This collaboration among researchers, clinicians, and educators across disciplines, departments, and schools is what uniquely positions UAB to advance our understanding of ASD.

    UAB Study of Individuals with Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome (PTHS)

    Limited clinical studies of individuals with PTHS have shown most display severe intellectual and developmental disabilities, motor and communication delays, restricted and repetitive movements, and characteristics that appear similar to autism. Due to the overlap in symptoms of individuals with PTHS and those with ASD, and because of UAB's expertise in the clinical diagnosis of individuals with ASD, Drs. O’Kelley and Guest partnered with Drs. Elizabeth Rahn, Andrew Kennedy, and David Sweatt in the School of Medicine to conduct a research study focusing to describe the social, communication, adaptive, developmental, and repetitive behaviors of individuals with PTHS. Currently, 26 families have enrolled in the study and data collection is ongoing. Since PTHS is so rare, it is vitally important that researchers and clinicians understand the behavioral characteristics and development of individuals with this syndrome in order to differentiate from other developmental disabilities and to guide recommendations for intervention. Study data was presented at the Civitan International/Simpson Ramsey Neurodevelopment Symposium and at the International Society for Autism Research conference.

    Dr. Laura Stoppelbein, Professor

    • Clinical Psychologis
    • Director of Outpatient Services, Glenwood, Inc.

    When and why did you come to UAB?

    I chose to come to UAB for both professional and personal reasons. Professionally, the Department of Psychology has an excellent reputation. It has both distinguished researchers and attracts undergraduate and graduate students who are high quality and are interested in psychology. On a more personal note, I grew up in Birmingham and was interested and happy to get back home and be close to family.

    What kind of research do you do? How does your research impact our understanding/ treatment of ASD?

    My research focuses on stress/coping within families and factors that influence stress/coping as well as the outcomes of ongoing stress. Within the area of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), our recent research has focused on how family functioning, such as parental adjustment and parenting styles, impact children with ASD. It seems that specific types of parenting may have an important role in helping to mitigate the potential anxiety and depression that children and adolescent with ASD often experience. Thus, treatment approaches could help focus on building these parenting strengths.

    Do you see patients/work in a clinical setting? If so, what is the purpose of those interactions/ assessments and treatments?

    I see children and adolescents at Glenwood, which is a non-profit organization that provides behavioral health care and educational services for individuals with ASD and severe emotional disturbances. At Glenwood, my role is largely administrative as I oversee the outpatient programming which includes psychologists, nurse practitioners, and master's-level therapists. As a clinician, my primary clinical functions are in the area of early identification and assessment of ASD among children and adolescents.

    Over the years that you have been researching ASD, what have you learned about the nature of these disorders?

    Although there are common themes that you see across individuals with ASD (e.g., certain types of symptoms), each person is very unique. If you have seen one kid with ASD, you have only seen one kid with ASD. You can not necessarily generalize the experience of one child or family to another.

    What role do stress and anxiety play in individuals with ASD? What about the impact of stress on families?

    Stress/anxiety always tend to exacerbate symptoms. They are more than likely not causal, but can cause significant increase in symptoms when they are present within a child with ASD or within the family. Oftentimes, families of children with ASD feel isolated and lack social support because they have limited resources for assistance. Additionally, the stress of having a child also has indirect impacts on things such as a family’s ability to attend church, or their ability to maintain gainful full time employment (if they are frequently being called to come get their child from school or daycare).

    What do you anticipate for the future of research and treatment for ASD?

    I think that we are making great strides in our understanding of ASD, but we still have a long way to go. We know that there are a multitude of factors that contribute to ASD, and I believe that our continued research will help us sort out which of these factors are most influential. Within society, I think education and understanding are important. Having opportunities for families of typically developing children to help support the family who has a child with ASD would be a great start. That would provide others with both direct experience to the challenges associated with having a child with ASD and offer the families a chance to bond and feel supported.

    How is UAB uniquely positioned to advance our understanding and treatment of ASD?

    We have a number of excellent researchers and clinicians in the area of ASD who are employed at UAB. This is true across the basic sciences, applied/social sciences, as well as in the area of clinical practice. I think supporting a collaborative effort across all three areas is a strength that UAB could capitalize on to help us further our knowledge in this area.

    Service & Outreach

    Our Psychology faculty members also work for and serve on the boards of a number of leading organizations and associations across the state.

    Kristi Guest

    State Committees
    • Alabama Early Intervention District Coordinating Council
    • Alabama Early Intervention District Coordinating Council Training Subcommittee
    • Alabama Early Intervention & Preschool Conference Planning Committee
    • Alabama Department of Human Resources Stakeholders for Foster Children Committee
    • Jefferson County Department of Human Resources Medical Community Board
    Advisory Councils
    • Parents as Teachers Advisory Council with United Ability
    • UAB Early Head Start Health Services Advisory Council
    • Birth to Five Statewide Initiative with Childcare Resources

    Maria Hopkins

    • Civitan International Research Center
    Research Partnerships
    • Exceptional Foundation
    • Mitchell’s Place
    • Glenwood, Inc.

    Sarah O'Kelley

    State Organizations
    • Alabama Interagency Autism Coordinating Council
    • Alabama Autism Providers Network
    • Alabama Autism Conference
    • University of Alabama ASD College Transition and Support Program Advisory Board
    • Autism Society of Alabama

    Laura Stopplebein

    • Glenwood, Inc.

  • Everyone has a story

    “How did you end up in Alabama?” I get that question a lot, both here and abroad. I suspect that every immigrant is frequently asked the same question out of genuine curiosity, maybe interest.

    Lourdes Sánchez-López, Ph.D.

    Professor of Spanish, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures

    “How did you end up in Alabama?”

    I get that question a lot, both here and abroad. I suspect that every immigrant is frequently asked the same question out of genuine curiosity, maybe interest. “UAB,” is my answer. I too ask that question to other fellow immigrants. Their answers vary, but they typically involve either professional opportunity or personal betterment. "Isn ́t that what we all aspire to in life?" We should ask ourselves. Everyone has a story.

    I was born in Southern Spain, under a fascist dictatorship that had been controlling the country and its people for almost four decades. I was a little girl, and my memories about this time are vague. My recollections start becoming clearer after the dictatorship ended, as I grew up in a country that struggled at first, but eventually succeeded in developing a new identity under a brand-new democratic system. In that sense, I consider myself fortunate to have been part of such critical historic change, which of course, shaped the person who I have become.

    Although my parents had lived their entire lives under the same dictatorial government, and did not really know anything else, they were (and still are) very progressive and forward-thinking. As soon as the country opened to the exterior and foreign information and ideas started coming in, my parents determined to do anything in their power to give their daughters a well-rounded education. That begun with learning another language and culture at the age of eight. Until college, my sister and I attended an English academy daily after regular school. I immediately fell in love with the power of languages, as it became clear to me that they are the most direct vehicle that connects us to other cultures and their people. I also took classes in four other languages at various times throughout high school and college, participating in three long-term exchange programs in two countries. With time, my passion became the scientific study of languages, ultimately pursuing a career in applied linguistics. Knowing a second language definitely opened doors for me personally and professionally.

    Unlike most children who aspire to become astronauts, doctors, police officers, or pop stars, I always knew I wanted to spend my professional life as a college professor of language and culture. My goals as an undergraduate student were rather practical: travel, make valuable connections, make a comfortable living. Once in the profession, those goals turned more idealistic: educate, broaden horizons, make a difference in my students’ lives, and in my community. Today my motivation as a language and culture professor is to educate the next generation of global leaders who will use their knowledge and skills to make their profession and communities a better place.

    At home, my husband and I are raising two intelligent and independent daughters, who are also bilingual and bicultural. It is my hope that, one day, they will use their skills in whatever professional area they choose, to become strong, productive and compassionate leaders and members of the society, contributing to making their world a better place. I have no doubt that their multilingualism and multiculturalism will help them achieve their professional goals and personal dreams.

    Under the current national and international political climate which, sadly, fosters division, marginalization, and exclusion, I feel privileged to be a humanist, an academic, and a college professor. Everyday, I have the opportunity to open my classroom to the world. Everyday, regardless of course or level, our language students learn about the fundamentals of diversity, equity and inclusion. And everyday, my life is enriched by my students ́ constant strong desire to become more intercultural competent.

    Why am I telling my story? Because everyone has a unique story, delineated largely by their education; and every story matters. UAB proudly ranks among the most diverse universities in the nation. We are all part of a global, interconnected world, and our responsibility as college professors and administrators is to prepare our students well to interact and work with people of diverse backgrounds nationally and internationally. Of course, we want our students to thrive after they leave UAB. I am always curious to know what our students ́ stories will be.

    What's your story? Share it on the College of Arts and Sciences Facebook page.