Twelve UNM faculty named as 2022 Women in STEM Award recipients


Eleven winning projects will look at capturing and recycling carbon dioxide, genomics of piñon pine trees in the intermountain west and planet formation among other things


Twelve women faculty members at the University of New Mexico have been selected for the 2022 Women in STEM awards. 


Award recipients will look at patterns of cancer disparities in New Mexico, consider an interdisciplinary lens for algorithmic justice, examine the importance of plant-rich diets and explore the possible role of plastic and fiber particles in chronic respiratory inflammation, among other topics.


The 2022 recipients are Dr. Diana Dragomir, assistant professor, Physics and Astronomy; Dr. Eliane El Hayek, research assistant professor, Pharmaceutical Sciences; Dr. Maricarmen Hernández, assistant professor, Sociology; Dr. Yan Lin, assistant professor, Geography and Environmental Studies; Dr. Hannah Marx, assistant professor, Biology; Dr. Jami Nelson-Nuñez, assistant professor, Political Science; Dr. Kathy Powers, associate professor, Political Science and Dr. Sonia Gipson Rankin, associate professor, School of Law; Dr. Vanessa Svihla, associate professor, Organization, Information and Learning Sciences and Chemical and Biological Engineering; Dr. Shuya Wei, assistant professor, Chemical and Biological Engineering; Dr. Janet Vassilev, associate professor, Mathematics and Statistics and Dr. Marygold Walsh-Dilley, associate professor, Geography and Environmental Studies.


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 seventh year, have totaled more than $425,000 to date.


Julia Fulghum, director of Advance at UNM, said the applications and the selected proposals reflect the depth of work being done by women STEM faculty at UNM.


This year’s proposals highlight the creative and intellectual effort women STEM faculty are putting into expanding or pivoting their research in the light of the pandemic,” she said. “The selection committee found reading and discussing the proposals to be energizing. We’re particularly excited to be funding the first travel proposals since 2019.”


UNM Provost James Holloway said he’s excited to see the variety of work being done by the winners. 


“We are excited to support these 12 exceptional faculty in their research work, spanning sociology to sustainability and ecology to engineering, with the Women in STEM award. I’m also very grateful to the donors who have made this special support possible,” he said.  


Funding for the Women in STEM Awards is from 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 women assistant and associate STEM professors at UNM to establish new lines of research and to develop research collaborations. 


Funding this year also comes from the UNM Office of the Vice President for Research. 


Vice President for Research Ellen Fisher said she looks forward to seeing the work that comes from the awardees.


“The OVPR is pleased we could add to the generous support provided by the Advance Program donors for the Women in STEM awards. The selected proposals showcase UNM’s outstanding research programs, and I am excited to see what new and innovative ideas will be catalyzed by these awards,” she said. 


The selected proposals are:


— Dragomir’s project, “Planets with Two Suns: Probing the Limits of Planet Formation.” The work will explore the puzzle of how planets form, Dragomir said.


“Humans have long wondered whether there are planets around other stars (exoplanets), whether any are like Earth, whether life has developed elsewhere,” she said. “While over 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered to date, this project takes the quest one step further by enabling a search for planets orbiting pairs of stars – real-life “Tatooines.” Developed in conjunction with a student in my research group, this research will help astronomers better understand how planets form.”


Dragomir said she’s looking forward to the discoveries ahead.


“This award will provide much needed support for launching this project, the results from which will help determine the direction in which to grow this research.”


— El Hayek’s project, “Fibers Pollution During Critical Periods of Climate Change: an Overlooked Enhancer of Chronic Respiratory Inflammations?” The work explores the role of fiber pollution in respiratory inflammation.


“Daily human exposure to plastic and fiber particles is occurring, yet the toxicological consequences of this exposure are still underestimated,” El Hayek said. “The goal of my project is to develop a novel approach to detecting the enhancement of chronic respiratory inflammations caused by exposure to fiber particles.”


The award for travel expenses related to the work will allow collaboration with Dr. Julie

Ledford at the University of Arizona, where El Hayek will be working at a specialized

lab in lung infections and asthma.


“My gratitude to the ADVANCE at UNM team is tremendous. It has been always a great pleasure for me to be a member of the UNM family, and my hope is to continue developing my research work within such an amazing scientific community,” she said.


— Hernández’s project, “Body Territoriality, a Methodological Analysis of Embodied Experiences of Fieldwork” will develop a methodological set of reflections that speak to the inter-relationality of embodied practices and experiences of conducting ethnographic fieldwork.


Hernández said she will collaborate with Dr. Prisca Gayles of the University of Nevada-Reno on the work, which will draw on the work of feminist scholars.


The pair “recognize that as researchers, our presence disrupts social space and we are also marked by interactions in our field sites; and second, make the case that these interactions are loaded with meaning and information, and are an important tool for conducting reflexive research,” Hernández said, adding that she and Gayles have been thinking about the importance of reflecting on our experiences as women ethnographers conducting field work for several years. 


“We are excited to receive support for this project, which we hope will contribute to the ongoing discussion among feminist ethnographers on embodiment and reflexivity,” she said.


Lin’s project, “Spatiotemporal Pattern of Cancer Disparities in New Mexico.” The work considers the role of geography in the outcome for cancer patients in the state.


“As a minority-majority state, New Mexico experiences significant racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, and rural/urban disparities in cancer incidences, late-stage diagnosis, treatment, and mortality,” Lin said. “This project looks at cancer patients’ travel pattern and treatment facility utilization pattern through a geographic lens.”


Lin said she’s looking forward to building a team to tackle this topic.


“I am very grateful for this opportunity from the Advance at UNM Women in STEM Award funding,” Lin said. “It helps me build an interdisciplinary team to work on this important issue in New Mexico and allows me to continue supporting students.  It will lead to advancement in the field of geography of cancer equity. Results from this project can be used to support targeted outreach of cancer support and treatment resources statewide.”


— Marx’s project, “Landscape Genomics and Local Adaptation of Piñon Pine across the Intermountain West.” The work aims to understand the climate adaptability of the piñon pine, which is the dominant tree species of mid-elevation forests in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado and plays important economic and ecological roles.


According to the proposal, recent droughts have caused large-scale mortality of piñon pines, but not all trees have died. 


“Populations in different parts of the species range have suffered strikingly different levels of mortality, independently of local variation in climate. The variation that has been observed among individuals and populations almost certainly has a genetic basis. In this project, we will describe range-wide patterns of piñon pine genomic variation for the first time, with the goal of understanding climate adaptability,” Marx wrote in her proposal.


— Nelson-Nuñez’ project, “The Politics of Desalination.” The project will focus “on the expansion of desalination/desalinization plants that can increase the drinking water supply in water scarce areas around the world. The project explores how desalination approaches can promote conservation and address water inequities, rather than simply expand water use,” Nelson-Nuñez said.


“The award enables me to grow this nascent project, developing case studies in new field sites locally and in Chile and Brazil. I’m particularly excited to work on something that is relevant to New Mexico where desalination projects are being considered,” she said.


— Powers’ and Gipson Rankin’s project, “Interdisciplinary Approach to Algorithmic Justice.”


As part of the award, Powers and Gipson Rankin will create a class in algorithmic justice at UNM.


“Algorithms are being used in every part of society, with potentially life changing consequences, in areas like criminal justice, employment, college admissions, finance, and medicine,” Gipson Rankin said. “This project will create a course on algorithmic justice that will train the next generation of law, social science, and engineering graduate students to conduct data and information science research in this emerging field.”


Gipson Rankin said the award is a nod to the importance of training students on the role of algorithms in our lives.


“This award recognizes UNM’s commitment to innovation that promotes justice across disciplines and society. I am honored to collaborate with my dear colleague and friend Dr. Kathy Powers on this project,” Gipson Rankin said.


Powers said the award also “recognizes the need for interdisciplinary research and teaching to help us understand complex problems like algorithmic justice. The purpose of this project is to help train the next generation of algorithmic justice scholars and algorithm designers.”


Powers also said the work is part of a UNM-Santa Fe Institute Interdisciplinary Working Group on Algorithmic Justice project that examines the consequences of algorithms for society and how algorithms interact with the legal, technical, and political systems in which they are embedded.


— Svihla’s project, “REACH (Required: Engineers Agentively Connecting Hortatively).” The project involves creating a new course at UNM that will incorporate a retention component for students in STEM fields.


“Lower-division undergraduate STEM courses aim to provide a foundation for engineering students, but the breadth can result in a fragmented experience for students,” Svihla said. 


“The REACH (Required: Engineers Agentively Connecting Hortatively) Project investigates ways to support engineering students to connect foundational content to the work of engineers and to their prior everyday and cultural experiences. In developing a new course, we had a creative idea about affirming that our students belong in engineering. This award is important because it will allow me the opportunity to document whether this idea works and how we can make it better,” she said.


— Vassilev’s project, “Closure/Interior Duality.” The work aims to further understand certain algebraic structures.


“My research involves studying operations on subsets of some algebraic structures on mathematical objects that are generalizations of the set of integers with its nice properties of addition and multiplication,” she said. “With my collaborators, we are developing a framework to unify the study of these operations which in many instances will help researchers better understand singularities algebraically.”


Vassilev said the award will be used on travel expenses and comes at a crucial point in her career.


“Right after receiving tenure, I increasingly took on a lot of service which put me behind on my research path. Just before COVID, I took part in the first Women in Commutative Algebra Workshop and visited George Mason to work with Rebecca R.G. and Neil Epstein.  Both of these trips jump started my research,” Vassilev said. “I look forward to my continued collaboration with Rebecca and Neil and the interaction with students both here and at GMU that these travel funds will provide.”

— Walsh-Dilley’s project, “Eat Plant-Rich, Varied and Not Too Much: How Denmark is Building a Climate-Friendly Food Culture.” The work considers what changes can be made to food systems to make them more hospitable to climate change.


“Our contemporary food system is a big contributor to climate change and we need to make significant changes to how and what we eat. Denmark is  on the forefront of this transition with its recently released national dietary guidelines that prioritizes the climate alongside healthy eating,” Walsh-Dilley said. “My WIS project looks at how Danes integrate these guidelines into their daily consumption decisions, and how the social practices around food shift to accommodate, adapt, or resist climate priorities. This project will help us understand what it will take to redesign our food system to be more climate friendly.”


“I am particularly grateful for the Advance at UNM Women in STEM support of social scientific work on climate change because without social buy-in, the best climate science won’t be effective,” she said.


— Wei’s project, “Understanding the Fundamentals of Capture and Recycle of CO2 in Metal-CO2 Electrochemical Cells.” 


Wei said the project hopes to understand the science behind highly rechargeable aluminum-carbon dioxide batteries for the capture, electro-conversion of carbon dioxide to value added chemicals, and carbon dioxide concentration while storing energy. 


“The research will further translate the knowledge to develop such an energy system that can store energy while capturing CO2 directly from the air. The project will offer an important strategy for large-scale energy storage and net-zero reduction of CO2 emissions,” Wei said.


“The Advance at UNM Women in STEM grant is extremely helpful for my research team to explore clean energy technology. I look forward to supporting students and continuing research on energy and sustainability,” she said.


To date, 62 women at UNM have been recipients of the awards. Learn more about past winners and how you can help support the awards here. 


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, 2021 and 2022 awardees in the near future.