12 UNM faculty receive 2021 Women in STEM Awards


Seven winning projects will look at better ways to manage water, how healthy brains age, and methods for transferring knowledge between robots


Twelve faculty members at the University of New Mexico have been selected for the 2021 Women in STEM awards. Winning projects this year will look at new ways to reduce the environmental impacts of human waste; social identities of people diagnosed with Celiac Disease; paths to better helping communities affected by climate change and the effects of acute sugar intake including possible links to asthma.


The recipients this year are Dr. Miriam Gay-Antaki, an assistant professor in Geography and Environmental Sciences; Dr. TyAnna Lovato, a research assistant professor in Biology, Dr. Amalia Parra, a research assistant professor in Biology; Dr. Xiaoxue Li, an assistant professor in Economics; Dr. Sarah Stith, an assistant professor in Economics;  Dr. Anjali Mulchandani, an assistant professor in Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering; Dr. Suzanne Oakdale, an associate professor in Anthropology; Dr. Caroline Scruggs, an associate professor in Community and Regional Planning; Dr. Melinda Morgan, an associate professor in Geography and Environmental Studies; Dr. Jingjing Wang, an assistant professor in Economics, Dr. Alex Webster; a research professor in Biology; and Dr. Lydia Tapia, an associate professor in Computer Science.


The Women in STEM awards are hosted by Advance at UNM in collaboration with the UNM Office of Academic Affairs and the Office of the Vice President for Research. Advance is a five-year National Science Foundation program to recruit, retain and promote women and minority STEM faculty. The WIS awards, now in their sixth year, have totaled more than $330,000 to date.


Julia Fulghum, director of Advance at UNM, said the applications and the selected proposals reflect a wealth of collaborative ideas.


“There is a terrific range of projects in this year’s winning proposals.  Of particular note, we received more collaborative proposals than usual, and we’re excited that people are finding ways to develop new collaborations under the current conditions. On behalf of the review committee and the ADVANCE team, congratulations to our 2020 Women in STEM awardees. We’re looking forward to celebrating your awards and following your progress.” she said. 


UNM Provost James Holloway said he’s proud of the work being done by the winners.


“This year’s Women in STEM projects range over many provinces of intellectual inquiry, encompassing projects from agriculture, to the effect of acute sugar consumption, to identity and Celiac Disease, to the culture of climate change science, from stem cell regulation in neurodegenerative illness, to teaching robots to do their tasks,” he said.  


“Our researchers are pushing our understanding across all these areas, with an eye towards positive impact on our human community.  I’m proud that UNM is home to such accomplished researchers.”


Advance at UNM, the Office of Academic Affairs and the Office of the Vice President for Research hope to host a celebration for the 2020 and 2021 awardees in the future.


The selected proposals are:


— Gay-Antaki’s project, “Gendering Science and Technology at Climate Negotiations.” The project aims to amplify voices that aren’t regularly part of the debate on climate change to make research on the topic more effective for vulnerable and underrepresented communities.


The research “will elucidate the mechanisms by which dominant meanings of gender, science and technology arise, are legitimized, and circulated but also how these are resisted,” according to the proposal. 


“The silencing of important voices from the production of climate science to the implementation of projects on the ground often result in failed attempts at climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, Gay-Antaki said.


“The Women in Stem grant will allow me to attend The Conference of the Parties (COPs) of the United Nations Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow, Scotland, to gather ethnographic and qualitative data to improve our understanding of climate change policy challenges and solutions.”


— Lovato and Parra’s project, “Transcriptional Regulation of Stem Cell Function in the Drosophilia Central Nervous System.”


The research intends to further the understanding of how healthy brains age and their relation to neurodegenerative diseases. While some aging cells experience functional decline, other older cells conserve their functions. The reason for this is unclear to researchers.


According to the proposal, “the aim of this project is to identify the genetic changes that underlie aging-related deficits in neural stem cell function. These results will generate new insights into stem cell aging and have implications to human aging and neurodegenerative diseases.”


— Li and Stith’s project, “Trick or Treat: Acute Sugar Consumption and Negative Health Effects in Humans.”


The pair plan to look at how too much sugar can impact people’s health, including possible links to asthma.


“The effects of acute increases in sugar consumption, such as around holidays like

Halloween and Easter, has never been studied, with only a limited literature addressing short-term effects of sugar consumption either in animals or from decades ago. This literature suggests acute sugar consumption may cause asthma, reduce the body’s ability to fight infection, and trigger ongoing increases in sugar consumption. 


Among other things, the work proposes “to use observational retail scanner data, which track household-level daily purchases, to study the effects of large increases in candy consumption around Halloween and Easter on over-the-counter medication purchases and future candy purchases.” 


Mulchandani’s project, “Waste as a resource: A thermo-chemical system to recover metals and produce oils from sewage sludges.”


The work explores better ways to get rid of human and industrial waste including through reusing some of it.


“Rather than disposing of these items, we can benefit by seeking more sustainable practices that reuse and recycle these resources and return value to society. In this proposal, I present a paradigm shifting process to implement energy and metals resource recovery at wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs),” Mulchandani wrote in the proposal. 


“There is a critical need for the next generation of wastewater solids management technologies to reduce solids production, manage metals, inactivate pathogens, and incorporate resource recovery perspectives in an environmentally benign, scalable, and economically viable manner.”


Mulchandani said she is excited to continue working on her passion to turn waste into something new.


“I am extremely grateful for this opportunity from the ADVANCE Women in STEM grant. “Waste as a resource” is a motto that has inspired my journey through environmental engineering. I look forward to supporting students, collaborating with wastewater utilities, and continuing research on environmental resource sustainability,” she said.


— Oakdale’s project, “Claiming Celiac: Narratives of Illness and the Creation of New Worlds.”


The work looks at the experiences of people diagnosed with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune condition affecting about 1.4 percent of the population. 


“Because Celiac requires a diet completely free from gluten contamination, it forces sufferers to continually identify as such. As they do, they must also navigate several undesirable social identities, in addition to the stigma of disease. While many do not wish to be defined by their disease, some take it on fully as part of their social personas. This project focuses on adults who publicly claim celiac, those who have made gluten intolerance part of their social identity or even, in some cases, “their brand” in various food service businesses and blogs/vlogs.”


According to the proposal, “the focus is on individuals’ relationship to their medical condition and their structuring of sociality, as these are evidenced in their autobiographical narratives and ethnographic observation of the gluten-free environments they have created.”


— The project by Scruggs, Morgan, Wang and Webster,” Perspectives on Innovative Approaches in Agriculture to Managing Water Scarcity.”


The collaborative research considers new efforts that could help address water shortages, including innovative and evolving water practices in agriculture.


Currently, many solutions to water shortages around the world focus on recycling and efficiency in municipal supplies. 


“However, the impact of such schemes may have a small impact on overall water use since domestic needs are relatively minor. As water scarcity intensifies, bottom-up, collaborative innovations among major water users such as agriculture are emerging and could have greater impact, “ according to the proposal.


The Women in STEM call for proposals was the catalyst that brought my co-PIs and me together for this research project and I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Scruggs said. This is our first collaboration, and I’m really excited to work with this interdisciplinary team. I’ve already learned a lot from each of them in putting the proposal together. We plan to leverage additional funding for the project as well, and I think the results will be impactful both in helping New Mexico think creatively about water scarcity solutions and in stimulating other innovative water resource-related research projects,” she said.


— Tapia’s project, ”Learning Conserved Robotic Features.” 

The work looks at ways to transfer knowledge one robot has learned to a new robot.


“When machine learning is used to teach a robot a task, the process usually entails designing features to describe the problem, gathering an enormous amount of training data, and spending intensive computation time to learn a model. This proposal focuses on gathering preliminary data on general properties that reduce learning complexity by exploiting sub-components of learned structures that can be reused by related robotic systems. This reduces both the data and computation time required for learning, Tapia wrote in her proposal.


Funding for the Women in STEM Awards is supported by an anonymous gift made to UNM to support research by, and professorships for, women faculty in science, technology, engineering, and math. Income from the gift is used to help UNM women assistant and associate STEM professors to establish new lines of research and to develop research collaborations. To date, 50 women at UNM have been recipients of this funding. 


Learn more about past winners and how you can help support the awards here.