Eight UNM faculty selected for the 2020 UNM Women in STEM awards

2020 Women in STEM Award winners (1)

Winning projects will develop sustainable concrete for 3-D printing, analyze social media discourse about the novel coronavirus and study groundwater resources on the Navajo Nation.


Eight UNM faculty members at the University of New Mexico have been selected for the 2020 Women in STEM awards. Their work includes research on the impact of global warming on alpine stream biology, the creation of a better way to identify missing and murdered Native Americans and analysis of high pressure-temperature studies on Martian rocks.


The recipients this year are Dr. Rebecca Bixby, a research assistant professor in biology; Dr. Tara Drake, an assistant professor in physics and astronomy; Dr. Heather Edgar, an associate professor in anthropology; Dr. Tamar Ginossar, an associate professor in communication and journalism; Dr. Maryam Hojati, an assistant professor in civil, construction and environmental engineering; Dr. Mousumi Roy, an  associate professor in physics and astronomy, Dr. Lani Tsinnajinnie, an assistant professor in community and regional planning, and Dr. Jin Zhang, an assistant professor in earth and planetary sciences.


The Women in STEM awards are hosted by Advance at UNM in collaboration with the UNM Office of Academic Affairs. 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 fifth year, have totaled more than $266,000 to date.


Julia Fulghum, director of Advance at UNM, said the selected proposals are an exciting representation of the work of women in STEM around campus.


“This was the largest and most diverse group of proposals we’ve received yet. We’re excited that the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering partnered with us on these awards, given the tough decisions the selection committee had to make. We look forward to celebrating these eight faculty in the fall,” she said. Advance at UNM and the Office of the Provost hope to hold an in-person celebration during the fall semester.


UNM Provost James Holloway said he’s excited about the potential impact of the winners’ work.


“These eight projects represent some of the excellent work that UNM’s faculty are pursuing, both to push the frontiers of knowledge and to create impact of benefit to the state of New Mexico and the world. These faculty should make us all proud to be Lobos,” he said.


The selected proposals are:


Bixby’s project, “Icy Seeps: A Potential Stronghold for Algal Stenothem Biodiversity.”


The research will focus on understanding the role of water sources in shaping algae assemblages in alpine streams. Bixby said she is interested in the role of insulated, buried ice as a potential water source in alpine streams that may provide longer term refuge for algae that are cold-adapted.


“I am excited and grateful to be awarded this Women in STEM grant to begin research that examines the impacts of global warming on alpine stream biology. Little baseline data exist for these alpine systems which are threatened by global warming,” she said. “This funding will support the initial research that will be a critical component in a collaborative plan to seek NSF support for long-term monitoring of these threatened alpine systems.”



Drake’s proposal, “Construction of a Fast Optical Frequency Sweeper for Managing Thermal Instabilities in Microresonator Frequency Combs.” 


Optical microresonators, tiny rings with a diameter similar to that of a human hair, are capable of simultaneously generating hundreds of colors of light, and have many potential uses, including chemical identification, creating more precise GPS clocks, and detecting Earth-like exoplanets. “Anything this small experiences temperature very differently than we do; what we think of as an unchanging temperature, a microresonator will experience as many rapid temperature shifts, happening at the rate of several million a second,” Drake said.


“In order to study this thermal noise, researchers need measurement tools that are fast enough to keep up.”


Drake said the award will fund the construction of a device allowing researchers to change a laser’s wavelength 10,000 times faster than they could otherwise.


“I am very grateful for the opportunity to build this capability, to jump-start my investigation of thermal effects in nanophotonics, and to support the beginning of an undergraduate research program in my lab.”


Edgar’s project, “Improving Identification for Missing and Murdered American Indians.”


The work uses pre-existing post mortem CT scans and collects measurements from American Indians who have died in New Mexico over the last 10 years. The goal is to use the measurements to provide a better understanding of the variation in cranial shape for contemporary Native Americans, which will help in identifying individuals and resolving missing persons cases.


Edgar, who also is a forensic anthropologist at the Office of the Medical Investigator, said the award is an opportunity to make a real difference for families in New Mexico and beyond. 


“The data we collect will be of use in forensic cases across the nation right away. Also, I will use this work as a pilot project to apply for a grant from the National Institute of Justice for a larger project including data on about seven times more individuals, and will include measurements from both crania and the rest of the body,” she said.



Ginossar’s work “Social Networks Analysis for Vaccination-Related Discourse on Twitter Before and After the Coronavirus Outbreak.”


Ginossar said the Coronavirus pandemic provides a timely opportunity to research social communication. She said the anti-vaccination movement is using Twitter to communicate its messages to their followers as well as to reach larger audiences. The Coronavirus pandemic introduces new questions about anti-vaccination tweets, their content, and the audiences they are targeting.


“I am grateful for this opportunity to extend my recent collaboration with my collaborators, Dr. Tanya Berger-Wolf, Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Translational Data Analytics Institute at Ohio State University and Dr. Elena Zheleva, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at University of Illinois,” Ginossar said. 


“This funding will allow me to publish related articles and apply for National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF) funding to accelerate the development and dissemination of communication computational methods in the context of vaccination and other health related topics,” she said.


Hojati’s study, “Design of Sustainable Concrete for 3D-printing.”


The research is focused on digital construction, and Hojati said the novel manufacturing techniques, including 3D-printing, and advanced building materials, have significant potential to revolutionize the construction industry and enhance the sustainability and affordability of housing in the future. Her long-term research goal is to develop innovative materials, advanced fabrication systems, and novel design techniques that enable the construction of affordable and sustainable housing and infrastructure for a new wave of 2.5 billion people who are projected to move into urban areas by 2050.


Hojati said the award will help lay the groundwork for additional research.


“The findings of this preliminary study will guide us to devise the larger and more comprehensive research plan and will be an essential part of an expanded proposal. The findings of this research study will prepare the ground to position me as a PI to develop a more indepth followup work in the future,” she said.



Roy’s proposal “Destroying Continental Plates: The Role of Thermal and Chemical Disequilibrium During Melt-Rock Interaction.” 


Roy said it is commonly observed that weak zones within tectonic plates are often associated with places where magmatic or volcanic activity occurs. The project will investigate the cause and effect hidden in this correlation. It will specifically explore how thermal and chemical disequilibrium during magma transport play a role in destabilizing, weakening, and in some cases destroying the plates.


Roy said she’s honored to receive the award. 


“It will support a number of pilot studies that my graduate student Katherine Cosburn and I will perform, laying the groundwork for a future NSF proposal.”


Tsinnajinnie’s work “Investigating the Sustainability of Mountainous Groundwater Resources to Support Watershed Planning Efforts on the Navajo Nation.”


As part of the project, Tsinnajinnie will collect groundwater samples from springs and wells in the Chuska Mountains and analyze them to estimate the time it takes for water to fall as precipitation until it is stored as groundwater or becomes springflow of these groundwater sources. Knowing this time frame will help communities in the Chuska Mountains to better understand how groundwater and surface water interact. In turn, this knowledge will support watershed management and planning efforts.


Tsinnajinnie said the funding is important to her ongoing studies in the area. 


This award is special to me because it will help me to continue collaborative research I’ve been doing with the Navajo Nation and will help me to lay more groundwork to submit future proposals with the National Science Foundation,” she said.


Zhang’s project “Plate tectonics of the past and current day Mars: insights from the high pressure-temperature studies of Martian mantle candidate rocks.”


The proposal aims to study the chemical, physical and geometrical factors that control the convection styles of the Martian interior and link them to our growing knowledge of the geological history of Mars, she said.


Zhang, who also is a scientist at UNM’s Institute of Meteoritics, said the award is crucial to work that could eventually look at other planets as well.


“The seed WIS funding is essential for my career development to expand my research areas from planet Earth to the entire solar system. The obtained experimental results from this study will also serve as the basis for a future NASA proposal,” she said.


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 will be used to help UNM women assistant and associate STEM professors to establish new lines of research and to develop research collaborations. To date, 38 women at UNM have been recipients of this funding. 


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