MSU professor featured in book about women in workforce

Friday Mar. 20th, 2020

When Connie Chang was in graduate school, a senior colleague told her to not expect to become a professor. He may have thought he was giving her a friendly reality check, Chang said, but the comment nonetheless illustrated the persistence of gender stereotypes that all too often undercut women’s aspirations.

Now an accomplished researcher in Montana State University's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, Chang is featured on the cover of a new book titled “Women's Work: Stories From Pioneering Women Shaping Our Workforce,” which highlights women defying expectations to lead careers shaped by their persistence and talent.

"I had no idea I would be on the cover," said Chang, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. "I thought the book was a really neat idea, and I've been happy to be part of it."

A project of award-winning photographer Chris Crisman, the book pairs his photos of 56 women —including a blacksmith, a vice president at Google and a rancher who lives near Livingston — with short essays authored by each woman about their upbringing and the challenges they've overcome.

The cover photo shows Chang in her lab in MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering, seated in front of a microscope and surrounded by a variety of chemistry glassware. "Forging a path as a woman in science is challenging, but each experience has helped me to grow and gain confidence in my abilities," she writes in the two-page essay about her parents, job at MSU and roles as mentor and mother of two young daughters.

Crisman invited Chang to participate in the project about two years ago, when he told her he would be in Montana for another photo shoot, according to Chang. A prominent scientist at MSU, Chang won a $500,000 CAREER grant, the National Science Foundation's highest honor in support of early-career faculty, in 2018. Her work focuses on new applications of microfluidics, in which tiny drops of fluid are manipulated in channels the size of a human hair in order to rapidly sort different microorganisms to help create vaccines, and test antibiotics, among other applications.

"I'm really proud to have Connie as a colleague," said Abbie Richards, head of the chemical and biological engineering department. "Her research is truly cutting-edge. She's very creative and is a top performer in our department. She's also an excellent mentor to the students in her lab, both graduate and undergraduate, and through her mentorship, she provides opportunities for others to follow in her successes."

Richards, who was appointed in January as the engineering college's first female department head, serves with Chang on MSU's committee for the IChange initiative. MSU is one of 15 public research universities participating in the inaugural cohort of the IChange Network, which is designed to increase the diversity of faculty in science, technology, engineering and math.

IChange comes as the latest chapter in an effort, going back at least a decade, to increase the number of women faculty in STEM fields at MSU, according to Richards. In 2012, MSU won a $3.4 million NSF grant called ADVANCE Institutional Transformation, designed to improved gender equity, job satisfaction, inclusiveness and diversity. "It has been really transformative for our college," Richards said. Both Chang and Richards are featured in a recent video highlighting women in engineering at MSU.

Over the past decade, the number of female tenure-track faculty has climbed from 9% to 24% in the engineering college and from 18% to 38% in the chemical and biological engineering department. Lloyd Berg, who served as the department's head for 33 years until 1979, pioneered efforts to recruit women students into the field. Chang recalls her father, who earned a doctorate in chemical engineering, coming across an old article in an engineering publication about MSU setting national records in 1972 for its number of female graduates. "I'm incredibly fortunate to be a member of a department that has a long history of supporting women students and faculty,” Chang said.

"In our college, we're very motivated to change the culture of engineering to one that is inviting to all people," said dean Brett Gunnink, who serves on the IChange committee as well as the President's Commission on the Status of University Women at MSU. "When new, talented faculty join our community and excel, we aren't surprised. Dr. Chang is an outstanding example."

Chang said she is awed by the variety of paths forged by all the women featured in the book. "There are no limits to what women can do," she said.

The book is available for sale online from publisher Simon and Schuster: