IES Award


Inclusive Excellence in STEM (IES) Award


The Inclusive Excellence in STEM Award (IES) is intended to recognize distinguished and exceptional faculty, staff, students, and now, alumni who have shown exemplary efforts to promote inclusion and diversity.  Each year, the Office of Inclusion, Equity and Diversity (OIED) recognizes a faculty/staff member, a student and an alum who have demonstrated tremendous leadership in advancing the University’s mission to build a more diverse and inclusive climate within COSAM and the STEM community as a whole. All full-time faculty, staff, students and alumni are eligible. Examples by which recipients may demonstrate commitment to OIED’s mission include: Work with student organizations that value the importance of inclusion, efforts that support recruitment as well as retention of diverse populations in STEM, research that expands the understanding of inclusivity, and community outreach activities.
The 2022 Inclusive Excellence in STEM Award Winners have been announced!
2022 IES Award Winners:
Ashley Williams | Dr. Cissy Ballen | Dr. Vanessa dos Reis Falcao
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To get a deeper understanding of how they conceptualize diversity and inclusion, we asked our winners a few questions on the subject. Their answers are as follows.
What is your definition of inclusion and diversity?
Dr. BallenI frequently think of these terms in the context of science classrooms, where inclusive practices acknowledge, welcome, and accept different perspectives and experiences, and encourage all students to reach their learning potential, not only those students already poised for academic success based on their educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Inclusive biology classrooms promote diversity in science, which is a broad and multi-dimensional term. Diversity exists on the basis of gender, race, first-generation college going status, disability status, citizenship status, tribal status, socioeconomic status, religion, marital status, and the list goes on! Diversity encompasses visual identities and concealable identities. In the context of work that my lab does, we conduct empirical research that amplifies the experiences of students with identities that are underrepresented, marginalized, or minoritized in science or society. The lab is interested in the mechanisms that underlie learning and academic performance across biology courses, as well as scalable teaching strategies that promote equitable learning environments for all students.
Dr. Falcao: Inclusion to me is the feeling that you belong, that people ask for your opinion and more importantly listen to you. It is to feel welcome to share and collaborate. Diversity is a rainbow of people. It is to see people from every background represented, people that are different in skin color, gender, sex orientation,  abilities, social class and age.  Diversity is when different people get together to create solutions that fit all and inspire the future generation as a community working to build a better world for all.
Ashley Williams: Inclusion: To accept without condition while acknowledging and respecting differences. Diversity: The natural variation existing within and amongst all things.
How have your experiences and background shaped the way you view inclusion, equity, and diversity?
Dr. Ballen: My research interests in inclusion, equity, and diversity originated as an undergraduate studying biology at University of Minnesota. Under the mentorship of Dr. Sehoya Cotner, we demonstrated the importance of women role models in biology classrooms. Since then, my research has embraced that each of our identities are composed of many axes, and it can be challenging if any one axis of our identity space is minoritized or under-represented. After this experience, I completed a disciplinary biology PhD in Australia, studying the physiology and social lives of lizards. While I found the work fascinating, I maintained strong interests in science equity because I recognized the broader importance and application of that research.
Towards the end of my PhD, I started looking for postdoctoral opportunities that allowed me to pursue biology education research that emphasized inclusion, equity, and diversity. As an assistant professor at Auburn, I have returned to conducting research on the impacts of role models in biology, and through this work we’ve seen again and again the critical importance for students to see their ‘possible selves’ among scientists. However, many student identities are underrepresented among scientists, and we are working to promote scientist role models through biology curricular materials. Though I possess advantages based simply on elements of my visible identity as a white woman, I conduct research to advocate for social justice, and have spent my career working to change institutional structures through informed study of equity and diversity in science contexts.
Dr. Falcao: I am a brown (bio)chemist woman, daughter of a south Indian man and a white German/Dutch first generation Brazilian woman. My life started in this mixed pot of diversity. I always said I was the product of globalization, and my parents always taught me to be proud of who I am. My parents prioritized education, but it was hard growing up in Brazil in a private school for white people, which made me believe I was white too. However, as a mixed-race person I never felt like I belonged. Being different, bullying started early and so I focused on studying and being a good student.
When I entered college, I had my first exposure to real diversity and made friends with people of different social status and race. It was hard seeing friends for the first time that could not afford to have a bookbag or books, even less could afford to socialize.  I started helping when I could and sharing or donating my books. My choice of chemistry as a major did not come without the prejudice and bias of people telling me the only sciences for women were biology, psychology, and nursing; women do not succeed as engineers, physicians, chemists, physicists or mathematicians. That was outrageous, and just prompted me to prove them wrong. I knew I would have to work hard to set the right atmosphere where women could get the respect and support to succeed in science. The road was and still is bumpy, for me and many others.  I was told at Auburn to dress more "professionally" to get more respect or asked why I still had an accent after so many years in the US. These are just a few experiences that exemplify why Inclusion, Equity and Diversity is so important to me personally and professionally.
I have not only experienced different situations of injustice but have unfortunately observed that in my workspace. My passion for education and social justice led me as an educator to work and pursue this safe and supportive environment where all can thrive. I believe one of my main goals is for my students to open their horizons and think critically about the world around them. I teach them to deeply appreciate the beauty, complexity and diversity of our world and how chemistry is a wonderful science which connects us and explains our differences. The classroom is a great place to experience the rewards of cross-cultural communication, promote diversity and inclusion, leadership and engagement and above all interest in the subject. I believe that I am very sincere in my simple desire to help students learn.
Inclusion, Equity and Diversity in the classroom can be accomplished first with awareness. I believe students are different and should be equipped with and have in their reach the tools they need to succeed. I am there to support and offer them what they need. I make sure my students feel included. I try to learn their names and make our connection personal. Students often thank me for feeling so welcomed in my class.
Ashley Williams: Facing discrimination both outright and subtle has forced me to develop a voice to advocate for myself and others who feel unwelcome. Being born and raised in South Florida, I was exposed to people of many different backgrounds and cultures. In fact, I loved culture so much I wanted to be a Cultural Anthropologist and obtained my bachelor’s degree from Florida International University in Anthropology to do so. I honestly never experienced discrimination until getting my Master’s Degree in Biological Sciences from Alabama A&M University, an HBCU, and while currently working on my PhD in Biology at Auburn University. In both places, I learned anyone can discriminate against others if they don’t “fit” a particular mold and that discrimination resides on a spectrum being eerily subtle to life-threateningly overt. In any case, it often leads others to feel a need to over perform to be accepted because they feel unwelcomed.
As a result, I have learned inclusivity is the antidote to making others feel welcome. By increasing the representation of others in major decision-making processes, it is possible to overcome, challenge, and dispel the seemingly justified biases of others that create barriers to access. This then generates equity as it gives more people from diverse backgrounds access to seemingly bias-barred opportunities.
What do you see as the most challenging aspect of creating an inclusive and diverse working environment? What steps have you taken to meet this challenge?
Dr. Ballen: While the fields of biology, technology, medicine have accelerated and evolved at a rapid pace, the way in which we teach students biology is essentially the same as it was hundreds of years ago – which is wild! For many instructors, including myself, it is challenging to anticipate the breadth of experiences that students bring into the classroom and consider how to teach in a way to reaches all students. What worked for me is not going to work for everyone. While this is a simple concept, it’s very difficult to apply! For example, many who succeed in a science class are likely to teach the same way they were taught, because hey, they could do it, and so they think their students should too. But this is a dangerous mentality that contributes to one of the most challenging aspects of creating inclusive and diverse working and teaching environments. Embracing equity in science is acknowledging, celebrating, and nurturing the different experiences and perspectives of those around us.
Dr. FalcaoI believe the biggest challenge to overcome is implicit bias. As the name says we do not consciously think about these biases and end up offending people. Being aware we all have our biases, knowing which ones they are and exercising our brain to think about them, and how to act and react, is the first step in the direction to recognize we are not perfect and there is a lot of work to be done. Apologizing and owning your mistakes is such a simple and hard act. I learned to acknowledge we are all different and need different things, we are all humans, but people come with a different baggage, and some need more support, and we should acknowledge that to make fair. So, the fact that a lot of people don't recognize the problem becomes our main problem, because it lowers the buy in, especially from people that have the privilege themselves, and the burden falls again on the people struggling the most themselves, to try to make a difference. 
I believe in what Dr. Mulligan-Guy and Dr. Goodwin taught me, that inclusion should be the first goal to bring people the sense of belonging and create an environment of respect that attracts more diversity. During these last two years working with IED we set goals, made action plans, gathered information, planned social events, created and analyzed surveys to stablish the climate in the department. We looked for outreach opportunities and scholarships. We intentionally invited people from underrepresented groups to give talks. And I believe my biggest accomplishment was working with Dr. Shepherd in the NSF Inclusive Teaching Project as a facilitator in a learning community and affinity group meetings. I also participated in course re-designs to incorporate universal teaching practices like transparency in assignments and more active learning in my classes, which help to level the plain for students with low experience, like for example first generation college students. We have the Biggio Center and our amazing Dr. Doukopolous offering so much support and awareness.  I am also very proud of the work we have done with Auburn Online creating a stereochemistry VR application which helped a lot of students this semester. This project came from Dr. Prado and Dr. Brandriet and I was so happy to be able to collaborate with them. This is how we did (and need to do) when trying to overcome the challenge: 1. become aware of the problem (in this case women especially struggle with 3D visualization), 2. talk and discuss about it, 3. propose a solution, 4. act on it to make a difference.
Ashley Williams: Apart from ensuring access to the work environment is actually being made possible through equitable hiring practices, the biggest challenge to creating a diverse and inclusive working environment is establishing and maintaining healthy, and respectful communication during moments of conflict. In my experience, when I feel I’ve been on the receiving end of microaggressions, I do not feel comfortable addressing the matter with the “aggressor.” This has often resulted in my being left with the bulk of the emotional and mental toll from the encounter. It further conflates with the feeling of imposture syndrome in a seemingly unwelcome environment and the additive effects of other encounters I might have had. I realize creating a safe environment to communicate matters regarding IED is important for the people on the receiving ends of IED aggressions to minimize their stress and to develop their advocacy voices. It’s also important as it stands to challenge and educate the aggressor. Together, it minimizes the chance for tension to develop for either party thus facilitating a positive work environment.
To meet this challenge, I practice conflict mindfulness and try to keep a diverse network of colleagues and friends. I often try to be open to constructive criticism and push myself to realize how I react and respond in difficult conversations. I try very hard to make sure I’m keeping a check on my own biases as I do not want others to feel unwelcomed or dismissed. And I aim to learn from each conversation to make more informed decisions for the future. I try to take advantage of IED educational opportunities such as Safe Zone and Implicit Bias training to develop a foundational knowledge in sociocultural competency. And finally, although I make genuine connections with most people in my network by developing foundations based on the similarities I might share with them, I also try to respectfully acknowledge the differences. 
What is your vision for COSAM as we work toward fully embracing inclusion, equity, and diversity?
Dr. Ballen: COSAM is full of individuals who care deeply about inclusion, equity, and diversity, which is an encouraging start. The unequal performance outcomes in higher education, especially among students with minoritized identities, are evidence that we can do better with respect to inclusive pedagogy. Work with colleagues Drs. Eric Burkholder (COSAM Physics), Shima Salehi (Stanford), and Robin Costello (COSAM Biology) showed historical patterns of departure from the STEM pathway at Auburn match those seen elsewhere, and indicate that we still have work do to.
Fortunately there are many grassroots and structural efforts that are happening within the college to embrace inclusion, equity, and diversity. These include several effective programs run through the Biggio Center, the COSAM Office of Inclusion, Equity, and Diversity led by the extraordinary Dr. Kimberly Mulligan, several Discipline-Based Education Researchers embedded across the math and science departments in COSAM, along with many individual faculty, students, and staff who lead and participate in groups committed to inclusion, equity, and diversity (for example, Dr. Wendy Hood in biology). Through these efforts and many others, we are on our way towards re-envisioning COSAM as a truly inclusive Auburn family.
Dr. Falcao: I am so proud of Auburn for being in the front of talking about it. COSAM is under a great leadership, we feel heard, and things are changing and moving in the right direction. I am hopeful we will attract more people caring and working to make a difference. I believe in the growth that comes from uncomfortable discussions, which are vital for a fairer environment. Everybody is different and all experiences are valid and should be appreciated when shared. And I see a COSAM united in making sure everyone deserves to be valued and respected. More and more we are a community that praises diversity and aims for inclusion and justice.
Ashley Williams: My vision for COSAM is simple. I want to see measurable and consistent IED training and materials offered for all students, faculty, and staff. I want to see IED treated with the same fervor as the lab, research, and cyber security training the University offers. And I want violators of IED efforts to be held accountable for their actions in the form of some measurable cost.
The award will recognize accomplishments that impact in the following areas:
  • Advocated for an environment in STEM that is welcoming of everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, ability, etc.
  • Contributed to raising awareness about inclusion, equity, and diversity issues on Auburn’s campus or beyond.
  • Made a significant impact on the Auburn community regarding the OIED’s mission for diversity and inclusion.
  • Fostered equity of opportunities for success.
  • Excelled in educating students from traditionally underrepresented groups within STEM.
  • Acquired new knowledge and/or work that enhances understanding of traditionally underrepresented groups within STEM or has the capability to improve the quality of life among diverse populations.
  • Organized or participated in initiatives/activities that promote the social, academic, and professional development of traditionally underrepresented groups within STEM.

Previous Winners

2021 Faculty Award: Dr. Stephanie Shepherd

2021 Student Award: Abby Beatty

2019 Faculty Award: Dr. Beth Yarbrough

2019 Student Award: Hayleigh Hallam