Keri Sather-Wagstaff believes everybody should have the chance to succeed in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“Helping everyone to flourish in STEM disciplines is my goal. Some groups have historically flourished, not everybody individually, but as a whole, and other groups have found closed doors and glass ceilings,” said Sather-Wagstaff, a professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences in the Clemson University College of Science.
Sather-Wagstaff will spend the next three years in Alexandria, Virginia working as a program officer in the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources’ Division of Human Resource Development to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. As a program officer, Sather-Wagstaff will convene review panels and make funding recommendations to the NSF.
Lives and leads by example
“Professor Sather-Wagstaff advocates tirelessly for people from marginalized and underrepresented groups and is able to bring about real, positive change. Keri embodies the ideals of JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) and lives and leads by example. Throughout her career as a highly successful academic mathematician, she has always taken the lead in promoting and supporting colleagues and students from historically marginalized social groups working and studying as mathematicians,” said Margaret Ptacek, professor of biological sciences and director of the TIGERS ADVANCE program.
During her seven years on the faculty at Clemson, Sather-Wagstaff has worked with the TIGERS ADVANCE program, which aims to improve gender and racial equity at the University. Most recently, she led the TIGERS Advocates program, which trains faculty to recognize implicit bias and learn strategies to better support women students, faculty and staff. Sather-Wagstaff is the outgoing chair of the University’s LGBTQ Commission.
“I will miss her as an ally, a colleague and a friend, but I know she will bring her empathy and strong sense of justice to the National Science Foundation as a program officer,” Ptacek said.
On the national level, Sather-Wagstaff participates in the American Mathematical Society, the Association for Women in Mathematics and SPECTRA, the national association for LGBT+ mathematicians.
“In some ways, this is my dream job,” she explained. Events of the past two years have made the work for urgent for Sather-Wagstaff. She referenced both the COVID-19 pandemic — disruptions to school and childcare led to negative career impacts for some faculty — as well as major incidents like the murder of George Floyd as catalysts for the urgency. “I love teaching, but it’s time to prioritize another aspect of the profession.”
She will work on two project teams: NSF Advance, which supports systemic change projects to enhance gender equity and inclusion for STEM faculty, and Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP), which works to increase the number of historically underrepresented minority faculty in STEM.
“There’s a basic human desire for justice and equity that motivates a lot of what I do,” she said. “But from a more pragmatic point of view, if you’re trying to cure cancer, world hunger or a global pandemic, then making sure all the voices that could contribute are engaged in the process is important.”
Take Delphine Dean, the Ron and Jane Lindsay Family Innovation Professor of Bioengineering. She set up Clemson’s first high-complexity clinical diagnostics lab to run all the University’s COVID-19 screening tests.
“She is absolutely crucial to our response to COVID and does award-winning work. There are many prospective Professor Deans out there who have teachers and professors out there telling them girls don’t do science, that girls don’t do epidemiology and virology. And, yes, they absolutely do. It’s even worse for Black students, Hispanic and Latinx, and Indigenous students,” she said. “Every student denied an opportunity based on the color of their skin or gender is possibly the person who could have cured cancer.”
Sather-Wagstaff said recent research indicates that scientists from historically marginalized communities are under-funded.
Deserving but overlooked
“They are deserving of being funded, but they are overlooked when you look at the submission rates versus the funding rates,” she said.
One reason, she said, is that the review process is not doubly anonymous. Scientists submitting proposals don’t know who the reviewers are, but the reviewers know who is requesting funding.
“Orchestras historically were all-male until they placed the musicians behind a curtain during their audition so the judges did not know their gender, name or anything about them. And, not surprisingly, the number of women hired into those orchestras skyrocketed,” she said. “That’s the exact thing the NSF needs to do, to anonymize the review process.”
Sather-Wagstaff said she’ll push for a change during her time as a program officer.
After her term ends, Sather-Wagstaff plans to return to Clemson and share her deeper knowledge of best practices in diversity, equity and inclusion.
The College of Science pursues excellence in scientific discovery, learning, and engagement that is both locally relevant and globally impactful. The life, physical and mathematical sciences converge to tackle some of tomorrow’s scientific challenges, and our faculty are preparing the next generation of leading scientists. The College of Science offers high-impact transformational experiences such as research, internships and study abroad to help prepare our graduates for top industries, graduate programs and health professions. clemson.edu/science
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