Clare Boothe Luce grant to support women undergraduate researchers in science, math, and engineering

12/12/2019

Mike Koon

Project lead Natasha Mamaril, left, Illinois Scholars Undergraduate Research director, joins co-project lead Jennifer Bernhard, Director of the Applied Research Institute and former Associate Dean for Research at Grainger Engineering.
Project lead Natasha Mamaril, left, Illinois Scholars Undergraduate Research director, joins co-project lead Jennifer Bernhard, Director of the Applied Research Institute and former Associate Dean for Research at Grainger Engineering.
The Henry Luce Foundation Clare Boothe Luce Program has awarded the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Grainger College of Engineering a $296,850 grant to support a total of 24 women undergraduate researchers in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and engineering. The awardees will carry the distinction of Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars. They will receive funding to conduct research in the fall, spring, and summer. 

The Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars program will be incorporated into The Grainger College of Engineering Illinois Scholars Undergraduate Research (ISUR) program. ISUR was initiated in 2004 to expose students to science and engineering research, including multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research, and to increase student retention in science and engineering programs and the number of students who continue to pursue STEM careers. 

“Rather than inventing something new, we are leveraging the ISUR program’s infrastructure for the CBL Research Scholars’ skill development and growth as researchers,” said Dr. Natasha Mamaril, grant project lead and ISUR program director. “Receiving this award will help us to further increase and broaden participation of undergraduate women in science, mathematics, and engineering.”

Playwright, journalist, ambassador, and member of Congress, Clare Boothe Luce was one of the most accomplished women of the 20th century. Appreciating that many women face obstacles in their chosen profession, she established this grant program “to encourage women to enter, study, graduate and teach” in fields where there have been barriers to their advancement: the sciences, mathematics and engineering. Since making its first grants in 1989, the program has supported more than 2,300 women. Through the program, the University of Illinois will offer eligible applicants the undergraduate research awards over the next three years starting fall 2020.

Applying for the CBL grant program is an extremely competitive process and schools must demonstrate an ongoing commitment to promote and retain women in STEM fields to even qualify to be allowed to submit a proposal.  Over the past decade, Illinois has achieved important milestones in enrollment and retention of women in STEM. In 2017-2018, female undergraduate enrollment for physical sciences and mathematics (35.64%) is at the national average (35-40%) and is above the national average (18-20%) for computer science and engineering (22.64%). Student retention rates for women in engineering increased over a 10-year period (2007-2017) ranging from 87% to 94% (>90% in the last five years). 

“We are constantly promoting undergraduate research as an avenue for our students to enhance their educational experience while building credentials that can help them pursue advanced degrees that can lead to careers in academia as well as research laboratories,” Mamaril said. “With this grant, we are hoping to build the confidence of women entering these fields via the research pathway.” 

Mamaril also hopes that with the research awards, women undergraduates will be encouraged to do their research on the Illinois campus instead of pursuing research opportunities at other institutions where they are also in demand.

Of historical note, in 1992, the last time Illinois received funds from the Clare Boothe Luce Program, the $100,000 CBL fellowship grant supported Anne Robinson and Judy Walker. Both have gone to distinguished careers. Robinson is now the head of the Chemical Engineering Department at Carnegie Mellon University, while Walker is the Aaron Douglas Professor of Mathematics and Associate Vice Chancellor for Faculty and Academic Affairs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Conducting research transforms the way students think,” said co-project lead Prof. Jennifer Bernhard, Director of the Illinois Applied Research Institute and the former Associate Dean for Research in the College.  “Students engaged in research become generators of both questions and answers, and knowing how to do research changes the way they approach every challenge throughout their lives.  Doing research encourages their curiosity and imagination in ways that make them better designers, better problem solvers, and better citizens.”