Women at the helm inspire the next generation of agricultural and biological engineers
Despite a more visible push over the past several years to encourage girls and women to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, one area continues to see a higher number of men earning degrees: engineering.
Housed within the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), the agricultural and biological engineering (ABE) department educates students on how to address many global problems our society faces today. These issues include climate change, food production and scarcity, and water quality and quantity.
Even though women make up two-thirds of the enrolled students in other agricultural and natural resource disciplines in the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, undergraduate and graduate degree seekers in ABE have only recently reached a roughly 50/50 male-to-female ratio.
Still, we consider this a great accomplishment, especially when research has shown how stereotypes and psychological factors can discourage girls from pursuing careers heavily involving math and the sciences. One of the best ways for us to inspire young women to succeed in STEM career fields is to make visible the many successful, relatable women in these industries – a mission our ABE department has followed for nearly two decades.
For the last 17 years, ABE has had women serving in leadership roles as department chairs. These women include Wendy Graham, the Carl S. Swisher Scholar in Water Resources and UF Water Institute director; Dorota Haman, professor emeritus who spent 33 years at UF; and Kati Migliaccio, who became the current department chair in August 2018.
Graham, who was the second woman to join the department’s faculty in 1989, became its first female chair in 2003. Her successor as chair, Haman, was the first woman to be hired by the department in 1985.
“Our discipline, as a whole, has traditionally been male-dominated,” Migliaccio said. “Right now, I believe there are only two other female chairs in the United States in our discipline. I think UF having three female chairs has allowed this department to grow and expand beyond other departments because it has brought a different perspective. The UF/IFAS ABE department has been less traditional in our choices, and I think that is a factor that has helped differentiate us and allowed us to become more resilient overall.”
Since her first day as chair, Migliaccio has looked to her predecessors for guidance and mentorship.
“Mentorship is critical. Having a support group that you can go to and know they are here for you is essential,” she explained. “Dorota and Wendy have helped me in many ways. Because I didn’t have to be the first, I didn’t have a need to be the first or prove a woman professor could lead UF/IFAS ABE. All of that is gone and that is one of the best things that they did for me: Remove the gender hurdles in leadership positions.”
With eyes to the future, the ABE department has recently established a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, led by associate professor Rachata Muneepeerakul. The committee incorporates faculty, staff and graduate student members.
“The concept is to promote thinking about diversity and inclusion, and that we continue to educate ourselves on how to be mindful and to ensure the place we work is welcoming for everybody,” Migliaccio said. “Having this committee reminds us that it is something we value and are working toward. It gives us a platform to introduce those ideas into the department.”
Women add to the diversity of thought in our classrooms and across industries. Seeing women role models in the agricultural and biological engineering profession and as teaching faculty allows younger women to know they belong and have valuable contributions to make in STEM careers. We must continue to encourage and mentor our young girls who wish to pursue a career in the STEM fields.
The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution.