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Women take charge in CSULB's College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Published March 28, 2022

More women are earning college degrees in science and mathematics yet few of these students have role models in leadership positions on campus. 

In the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, however, women have moved to the forefront. Five of the seven departments are being led by women professors, instilling a new look and attitude to the college. 

Drs. Dessie Underwood (Biological Sciences), along with Lora Stevens (Geological Sciences), Christine Whitcraft (Environmental Science and Policy), Lisa Martin (Science Education) and Lijuan Li (Chemistry and Biochemistry) represent a large step toward gender equity in STEM fields. 

“Having a woman as a chair has always been inspiring. There's no question that women in her (Underwood’s) position, or any position have had to work much harder to get there and to stay (in higher positions),” said Brina Mendoza ‘20, an administrative assistant in the biology office. 

Curtis Bennett, the Richard D. Green Dean, said the five women chairs is a “result of our departments being places where women can be successful and take leadership roles.” 

While chairs might have little direct contact with students daily, they do represent a growing segment of women who are leading the scientific and mathematics field at the university level. And this come at a critical juncture when universities are working to further increase the number of women in STEM fields. 

“It is important for women in our classrooms and our junior faculty to see women in leadership roles,” said Underwood, who runs the Stream Ecology and Assessment Laboratory. “It’s important for people to see others like themselves, to feel like they belong.” 

At CSULB, nearly 60% of the first-year students enrolled in CNSM in 2020 were women seeking STEM degrees. The college awarded 297 bachelor’s and 56 master’s degrees to women the previous year. Plus, the CSULB physics program ranks among the nation’s leader in awarding physics degrees to women. 

Bennett said having women as chairs has made a difference in boosting those numbers. 

“I think having successful women role models and leaders in the departments has a significant impact on our women students,” Bennett said. “It helps women students have a greater sense of belonging when they see not just women professors but women in leadership.” 

Whitcraft said the presence of women leaders in academia is important for developing future women leaders. 

“I hope that we can work with the entire college to advance a vision for more diverse and inclusive faculty, by gender, ethnicity and race with all faculty and leaders being held accountable,” she said. 

Five CNSM department chairs
Standing from left: Dr. Dessie Underwood, Dr. Lora Stevens, Dr. Lisa Martin,. Seated from left: Dr. Lijuan Li, Dr. Christine Whitcraft.

A bit about the five CNSM chairs: 

Dr. Lijuan Li, Chemistry and Biochemistry

Li came to CSULB in 1998 and was promoted to chair in 2021. As principal investigator, Li received more than $3 million in research funding from sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). She said it is important to have role models for minority students and women in the sciences. “I am looking forward to inspiring more women and minorities in STEM.” 

Dr. Lisa Martin, Science Education 

Martin joined the ranks of chair this year after a career as a science education professor and former elementary and middle school teacher. She said having women leadership is noteworthy because there are many places “where women have had to prove themselves as scholars and intellects in their respective fields.” 

Dr. Lora Stevens, Geological Sciences 

Stevens is among the new chairs in CNSM, having taken over the position this academic year. Her research interests have focused on paleoclimatology, paleolimnology and isotope geochemistry. She said having women in leadership roles, as chairs, can have an impact on young female faculty, who aspire to advance in academia. 

Dr. Dessie Underwood, Biological Sciences 

Underwood, a broadly trained ecologist, took over as chair in 2016. In addition to her chair duties, she runs the Underwood Lab, an ecological entomology research lab that studies both terrestrial and freshwater systems. The lab also includes the Stream Ecology and Assessment Laboratory (SEAL) at The Beach. SEAL conducts freshwater assessment of streams in Southern California. 

Dr. Christine Whitcraft, Environmental Science and Policy 

As director of the Whitcraft Lab, Whitcraft’s expertise includes climate change, human effects on coastal ecosystems and wetland ecology. The Environmental Science and Policy program technically is in the College of Liberal Arts, but her research falls under CNSM. When Whitcraft took over as chair in 2017 and said she wanted to show strong leadership between the two colleges.