ADVANCE Institute offers grants to empower female faculty

Kathy McCoy was reluctant to step outside her comfort zone as professor of computer and information sciences, a position she had held for 15 years at the University of Delaware. She didn’t necessarily see herself as a leader, let alone chair of the department.

“As chair you’re exposed. You’re scrutinized,” said McCoy. “The faculty are looking to you for guidance, you have to be ‘on’ all the time.”

McCoy didn’t see in herself what her colleagues saw.  With Pam Cook’s encouragement, McCoy assumed the role of department chair in September 2015.

Kathy McCoyCook, associate dean for faculty in the College of Engineering (COE) and principal investigator of the University’s NSF-funded ADVANCE Institute, suspected that McCoy just needed support and the right tools to succeed. So she urged McCoy to apply for an ADVANCE grant to support her participation in a leadership training.

Since 2015, ADVANCE has awarded more than 30 mini-grants to female faculty to promote mentorship, networking and leadership-development opportunities. It’s part of the institute’s mission to encourage and support women faculty in STEM and social and behavioral sciences who aspire to lead and advance in their careers.

The program is hoping to grow applications and awards, with faculty members encouraged to apply any time by completing the application available on the UD ADVANCE website.

ADVANCE awarded McCoy a grant to attend the HERS Institute, a higher education leadership program at Bryn Mawr College that strengthens and supports women in every stage of their career. The intense, two-week residency program taught McCoy how to develop her unique leadership skill set while teaching self-awareness of her own strength as a leader.

The program was transformational for McCoy, who returned to UD feeling a renewed sense of empowerment.

“It was a life-changing experience,” said McCoy. “I came out of the program thinking, ‘Gosh, I have been given all of these tools and support. I can do whatever I want to do’. It was a great relief.”

Cook pointed out that, consistent with national trends, there is an overall gender disparity in COE’s faculty ranks: Just 12 of the 81 full professors — 14.8 percent — are women. While the gap has narrowed in recent years, there is clearly room for improvement, she said.

“We need stronger representation of women among the university faculty and in academic leadership, especially among the STEM faculty,” said Cook. “The NSF ADVANCE program was created in view of this need, and to support a more positive climate for all faculty. Nothing makes us more satisfied than to see faculty like Kathy successfully leading.”

Babatunde Ogunnaike is the William L. Friend Chaired Professor of Chemical Engineering and the former COE dean.

“The engineering and computer science disciplines have been missing out on the leadership skills of women,” Ogunnaike said. “I put it this way once: We have been going through life with one eye closed. I am grateful to ADVANCE and to Kathy for helping us to ‘open the other eye’. Our depth of perception has improved, and we are making progress in attracting women to our ranks.”

Liyun Wang, associate professor of mechanical engineering, was awarded an ADVANCE grant to attend the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s workshop on leadership in bioscience.

“Before the course, I thought the problems that arose in my career were unique to me,” said Wang. “After the course, I understood that those were common, and many effective solutions have been developed and tested. Now I am confident that I have strategies I can use to work out any issues I’m faced with.”

“These leadership experiences are very important,” concluded McCoy. “If we’re going to be effective leaders, we have to be willing to work at it—it doesn’t always come naturally.”

For more information on the UD NSF ADVANCE mini-grants program, visit