Picture of UMass campus while students walk across the campus pond bridge in the foreground.

The mission of the University of Massachusetts Amherst is to create positive impact on the Commonwealth and the broader society we serve through education and advancing knowledge. As the flagship public university in Massachusetts, we cherish and add to the Commonwealth’s long tradition of intellectual and educational leadership.

Our institution is rooted in the idea that any qualified individual, regardless of wealth or social status, should have access to high-quality higher education. We draw from and support diverse experiences and perspectives as an essential strength of this learning community and accept for ourselves and instill in our students an ongoing commitment to create a better, more just world.

Table of Contents

Dear Friends and Supporters,

I am pleased to provide this fiscal year 2020 Report on Research. It showcases the notable research and scholarly activity being conducted at UMass Amherst.

During these unprecedented times, our faculty, staff, students, and partners have stepped up to meet unprecedented challenges. We have come together to apply our knowledge and expertise to help provide solutions to the problems that confront us. Whether it is banding together to create COVID-19 Response Teams ready to support the needs of the medical community, or providing insights into adapting to climate change, new clean energy approaches, equity issues, or catalyzing innovation, UMass Amherst continues its land-grant mission of research and scholarship for the common good.

Your support, in its many forms, helps us to realize our vision of a better future for all. Thank you for your interest, and Go UMass!

Michael F. Malone ’79PhD
Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement

A Good Idea Goes Viral
COVID-19 Response Teams answer health care workers’ call

Labeled Faces in the Wild
UMass professor calls for oversight of face recognition software

Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center
Taking regional action on climate change

Out of Thin Air
New technology uses protein to create electricity from moisture in the air

Innovative program hits the mark for faculty equity

Building a Just Society
Educator challenges institutions to rethink attitudes rooted in oppression

"I" (Corps) is for Innovation
UMass Amherst has a powerful new tool for STEM tech development

COVID-19 Response Teams answer health care workers’ call
Dr. Peter Reinhart, director of the UMass Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences

Peter Reinhart, PhD, was sitting alone in his fifth-floor office on a cold day in March. The $150 million building that houses the UMass Amherst Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS) stood virtually empty. Its halls were void of traffic. Its equipment, silent. Just days before word had come from the Chancellor that the campus was closing. Students were leaving, staff were sent home to work, and labs and facilities were on skeleton crew. A life-threatening virus was on the loose and no one knew how to stop it.

“I was sitting in my office just after the campus had shut down and thinking, ‘what a waste.’ Here we are sitting in a beautiful new building with $60 million of new life science equipment, and we have some of the smartest people on the planet thinking about assay building and sample testing, sitting at home. It really irked me,” says Reinhart.

At the same time, news reports highlighting regional and national shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and face shields, were coming in. Testing centers couldn’t get testing materials, such as swabs and the biological medium necessary to transport virus samples safely to labs. “It was such a disconnect to me, thinking we have all these resources on one side and this massive need on the other side. How could I connect these two?” says Reinhart.

He put out a call to the campus, asking if anyone would be interested in participating in some regional efforts to try to help with the shortages and the societal issues that were hitting the life sciences space. He couldn’t believe what happened next.

“I got a few hundred responses within hours,” says Reinhart. “It made me realize that people were very excited about helping this crisis that was hitting us both nationally and very locally. The phrase ‘COVID-19 Response Teams’ really just formed itself. We were dealing with a COVID-19 crisis, and we were trying to address some of the issues related to it—we were actually creating responses.”

That initial call would result in the formation of more than a dozen Response Teams, each actively addressing COVID-19-related problems.

The Need for Face Shields

As faculty and staff started to tease apart the issues, it became clear that the lack of PPE for frontline workers was huge. “Nobody had enough face shields,” Reinhart says. “All the frontline workers were complaining that they’d be seeing patients all day long and they didn’t have enough PPE. They would have to clean it at the end of the day. They would have to put their name tags on it, reuse it day after day. We started to brainstorm around it, and pretty soon we had a team that was focusing on face shields.”

Assistant Professor Meghan Huber models the

UMass Amherst face shield she helped develop.

Reinhart knew that in order to respond with something useful, and quickly, the team would have to reach outside the Institute for help—something he had learned working in industry. Team members began participating in regional conference calls and collaborating with health care professionals and other academics who could address face shield design from a broad perspective. The Response Team worked together with area clinicians to design prototypes, identify technical issues, and suggest improvements to the design of a low-cost shield for rapid production. It was clear through that process that in order to keep costs down, the shield had to be designed so that it could ship flat. With those design requirements in mind, UMass Amherst engineers Frank Sup and Meghan Huber created an origami-like face shield from a flat sheet of plastic material that could accommodate the wearing of PPE underneath, such as an N95 respirator, and was simple enough to be assembled in 15 seconds or less. The design uses laser cutting or industrial die cutting, which can produce tens of thousands of shields per day, per machine with minimal workforce to reduce the spread of worker infection. Partnering with K+K Thermoforming of Southbridge, Massachusetts, the team fabricated and distributed 100,000 face shields throughout the region.

“We weren’t a delivery organization, yet we somehow had to get them out to all the regional hospitals, to frontline workers, to ambulances, to hospices, to the Holyoke Soldiers' Home. They were all asking for help,” says Reinhart. Ellen Smithline ’21PhD, a longtime emergency care nurse and College of Nursing doctoral student, was asked to vet the needs, and a University Health Services doctor was asked to help with requests. Week by week, they came up with a triage list of who on the front lines needed face shields the most. Campus volunteers jumped into their cars and delivered the shields; team members also provided curbside pickup, putting the number of boxes people had ordered on a table outside the IALS building.

“We went from nothing to having made 100,000 face shields and distributed them to about 60 local medical groups, including Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Baystate Medical Center, in a few weeks’ time,” says Reinhart.

The Dark Days of COVID
In the early days of the virus, planes were chartered to get face masks to Massachusetts from overseas. But did these masks work?

Rick Peltier '97

Richard Peltier ’97, professor of environmental health sciences in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, leads the face mask team. His lab conducts tests on mask re-use. “Not all face masks can be safely sterilized and reused,” says Peltier, though his research has shown that hydrogen peroxide sterilization for N95 respirators does work. Using state-of-the-art pollution instruments to measure whether microscopic particles can pass through the mask after it is sterilized, his results showed no real difference in filtration between a new mask and a sterilized one. “As new sterilization methods continue to be developed, my lab continues to do rigorous scientific testing to evaluate the efficacy of different mask sterilization methods,” says Peltier.

Another Response Team was quickly formed when Baystate Health’s resident physician, Mat Goebel, and respiratory specialist Kyle Walsh contacted the campus for help with ventilators. Regular 10-foot ventilator cables were on extreme backorder, and longer cables, which would provide added safety to staff by increasing distance and reducing the need for PPE, did not exist.

UMass Amherst engineers designed a longer ventilator

cable that provides health care workers with

an increased level of protection.

“If you have an intubated patient on a ventilator in a hospital, you don’t want to be very close to them because clearly they are highly infectious,” explains Reinhart. “But there was no way to take the ventilator control signals away from a patient bed to a safe distance where hospital staff could operate it.” Seems straight forward, but it was a pretty tricky project,” says Reinhart. “We had to get immediate sign off from the legal group in Japan that actually owned some of the patents so we could make some of these parts.”

After getting permission, UMass engineers were able to fabricate a 50-foot cable that was compatible with Baystate’s ventilators. They contacted Amphenol Sine Systems, who agreed to design and fabricate the longer cables. Baystate is now ordering cables directly from the manufacturer.

Testing, Testing, Testing
Another COVID-related product that was in need in the early days was viral transport medium (VTM). As testing ramped up nationwide, this solution, used to keep COVID-19 samples safe during transport, was in short supply. Most of the medium needed for testing came from a company in Northern Italy, which shut down. Inevitably, the U.S. supply of testing materials dried up. Staff from Cooley Dickinson and Baystate Health again contacted Reinhart for help and a new Response Team swung into action, putting a VTM production line together.

UMass Amherst supplied regional hospitals

with 120,000 tests worth of much-needed

viral transport medium.

“This is probably the largest group of volunteers we have working, around 30-35 people, working just about around the clock, shift by shift, to manually make this viral transport medium, liter by liter. The Broad Institute ran out, the State testing lab ran out. By the end, we had made about 120,000 tests worth of VTM and supplied all the regional hospitals, from Pittsfield out west to the east. We supplied all of these organizations with our UMass-made VTM, which kept testing going in those dark days in April and May when there was none to be had anywhere,” says Reinhart.

Again, the team had to organize distribution. “This is not something you think about as an academic group. Manufacturing, scaling, the appropriate labeling, making sure the tubes stay sealed during transport, the quality control to make sure there are no PCR (polymerase chain reaction) inhibitors in any batch of our solution, storing them in cold rooms. Erin Poulin, lab manager at UMass Amherst Health Services, was instrumental in being the point of distribution for the local hospitals to either arrange pickup or transport,” says Reinhart.

Expressions of Gratitude
At the end of the day, all of this hard work does not go unnoticed by those who have benefited from the UMass Amherst COVID-19 Response Teams. “We had people whose daughters and sons working in testing tents on the front lines writing letters saying, ‘Who knows? You may have saved my daughter’s life.’” Reinhart reads from a letter from the Holyoke Soldiers' Home (which made national news for high numbers of COVID-19 deaths) filled with such gratitude that it brings tears to one’s eyes. “It makes you feel really good when that happens,” he says.

Reinhart acknowledges the selfless generosity of the many volunteers that came together to create these Response Teams. “Whether the teams were large or small, this was an all-volunteer effort with no compensation of any description, other than the feeling that you are contributing to solutions in a time of crisis. We had many times the number of volunteers that offered to help us than we could possibly find jobs for. The real heroes here are all the individual volunteers who got up on a Saturday morning to come into the lab and sit pipetting for seven hours when they could have been outside enjoying the weather or doing other things,” says Reinhart. “They chose to do this instead.”

UMass Amherst was recently designated one of ten 2020 Healthcare Heroes by BusinessWest. Read the article.

Table of Contents

UMass Students Get Active

Award-Winning Work
Nursing doctoral student and longtime emergency care nurse Ellen Smithline ’21PhD made Johnson & Johnson’s list of “Ten Nurses Pioneering Innovative COVID-19 Solutions.” Smithline not only contributed to the design of a fast-track face shield for health care workers in a multidisciplinary UMass Amherst project, but she has also helped set up and manage
COVID-19 medical care tents in Springfield to screen homeless people and provide shelter to those who may be infected and need to be isolated.

Helping the Holyoke Soldiers' Home
Two UMass Amherst ROTC cadets—psychology major Jake Gramstorff ’21 and kinesiology major Jacob Goulet ’21—were called up to serve as National Guard medics at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, which has been hard hit by COVID-19. For weeks, both students have been providing direct care to veterans living in the home, among other duties. “Hearing the stories from these amazing men and women and their incredible lives of service inspires me every day,” says Gramstorff. Goulet says providing care to veterans in their time of great need “has truly been both humbling and rewarding.”

A Call from the Commonwealth

In the largest and earliest UMass Amherst volunteer initiative, some 215 graduate and undergraduate students in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences signed up to support dozens of local public health departments across the state as part of the Massachusetts Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps. That group, co-led by Aimee Gilbert Loinaz, Public Health and Health Sciences assistant director for internships and employer engagement, includes students from 12 Massachusetts schools and programs of public health.

Within weeks, 66 students had been assigned to carry out rapid-response tasks from their homes, including the first contact tracing and translation of critical COVID-19 materials into 11 languages. “Nearly 100 other students were hoping to be deployed throughout the summer,” Gilbert Loinaz says. “We are a home-rule state, so every local public health department is different in what their needs are.”

Table of Contents

UMass professor calls for federal oversight of face recognition software
Picture of digitized outline of a face.

It’s been in the news: public concern over the growing use of face recognition software, its flaws and biases, and increased use by private companies and government agencies in ways that might be unfair, or even detrimental, to certain populations. UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) Professor Erik Learned-Miller, a pioneer in the development of face recognition software, is calling for federal oversight of the technology in order to promote its fair use.

His recommendations are outlined in a recently-released white paper, titled “Facial Recognition Technologies in the Wild: A Call for a Federal Office,” co-authored with Joy Buolamwini, Vicente Ordonez, and Jamie Morgenstern. Learned-Miller’s motivation for regulation comes from a deep understanding of the problems associated with face recognition software and its use in ways that were not originally intended.

In many ways, Learned-Miller is the right person to suss out face recognition regulation. Along with UMass Amherst alumnus Gary Huang ’12PhD and Facebook research scientist Tamara Berg, Learned-Miller was honored with the 2019 Mark Everingham Prize from the International Conference on Computer Vision. The three were recognized for their work on one of the most influential face datasets in the world, Labeled Faces in the Wild (LFW), considered the gold standard by which facial recognition algorithms are measured. It’s been used by companies such as Google and Facebook to test their facial recognition accuracy.

Professor Erik Learned-Miller

LFW moved the needle on face recognition accuracy for several reasons, says Learned-Miller, including the types of images used in face recognition datasets. “Most people were working with things like passport photos, where faces are very carefully aligned in the middle, looking in a particular direction with no expression. I jokingly call these ‘faces in a vise.’ We wanted to promote research on arbitrary face images and to establish better face recognition rules, so we created LFW,” says Learned-Miller.

Though LFW was a big improvement over other datasets, it had its limitations. Racial and ethnic diversity of any data set is limited, as is the number of arbitrary images you can reasonably manage to collect and label.

“There is an illusion out there that if you had a magic database with enough images in it and enough different people, then we could use it to certify all the face recognition systems. That won’t work. No matter how many people you put in a database, there will always be subgroups that will not be well represented; for example Pacific Islanders, Native Americans over 85, children with autism or Down’s. Will you say your software just doesn’t have to recognize those people? That is not acceptable,” says Learned-Miller.

Stricter demands for data privacy are putting a kink in the ability to collect image data as well, says Learned-Miller. “General data protection regulations (GDPR) laws, like those found in Europe, are getting very strict. If your personal information appears in any database, you can demand it be removed for any reason,” he says.

Seeing no way around these problems, Learned-Miller started to think about the issue in a different way—one that was based on his early career as co-founder of a technology company that developed software and computer platforms for use by neurosurgeons in the operating room.

“Our company had to get those products approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration),” says Learned-Miller. “The approval process required thorough documentation and the creation of a scientifically valid way in which to test our devices for safety and efficacy, which the FDA either approved for marketing or rejected. That is the model. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘That’s what we need.’ We can’t have a one-size-fits-all test for all possible uses.”

For some applications, such as social media filters that are used just for fun, the consequences of faulty recognition are low. “But if you give police body cams and they are identifying people as they are arresting them, the consequences can be really severe. You are not going to demand the same kinds of tests for both of these uses,” says Learned-Miller.

“The FDA model seemed like a natural fit. They have a whole center just for regulating medical devices and one for regulating pharmaceuticals. These offices operate somewhat differently, but they work on many of the same principles. The FDA has been working on this for 100 years and it is highly sophisticated. As much as people like to criticize the FDA, the model is effective and they do a great job,” says Learned-Miller.

Learned-Miller’s push to regulate face recognition is part of a larger effort by CICS to focus on computer science research for the common good, which envisions a world where computing enhances the well-being of its citizens. Research initiatives take into consideration concepts of equity, accountability, trust, and explainability (EQUATE).

“Now it is time to address many of the larger societal challenges that come with face recognition technology, including fairness, privacy, and intelligent guidelines for its use,” says Learned-Miller. “Many of us at UMass and elsewhere are working hard to address these problems.”

Read the white paper.

Table of Contents

Taking regional action on climate change
UMass Amherst professor Jon Woodruff and students in a grassy Nahant, Massachusetts marsh.

The word “adaptation” in the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center’s (NE CASC) name gets right at the crux of its work. While other institutions focus on climate projections, such as how fast our oceans are rising, or how quickly our atmosphere is warming, UMass Amherst-based NE CASC investigates how we can use this information to protect wildlife and  ecosystems from the looming impact of climate change. To date, NE CASC’s research has included such topics as how to conserve monarch butterflies in urban areas; predicting the impact of climate change on maple syrup production; investigating how shifting climate is affecting mammals in the Northeast; assisting tribal nations with climate change adaptation; and studying how to keep cold-water fish cool. The center has completed scores of such critical projects, with many more underway.

“We have more demand for work that’s valuable to our region than we can provide,” says director of NE CASC, Richard Palmer.

Actionable Science
It’s unusual to have such a focus on actionable science at the university level, says Palmer, who is also a UMass Amherst professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We are set up to work reciprocally with stakeholders to see what the impacts of climate change will be on our resources and to inform resource management,” he explains. “Our faculty, staff, and federal partners are working directly with people who make decisions—park managers, coastal fisheries staff, foresters, directors of land trusts. We can then see the impact of the science they bring to these problems. It’s very exciting.”

Richard Palmer

It was a validation of the campus’s expertise and research breadth when the U.S. Department of the Interior selected UMass Amherst as the NE CASC host in 2011. Since plants, animals, and waterways don’t respect boundaries, the consortium is geared for large-scale decision making across state lines, spanning a region from Maine to Virginia and west to Missouri.

In addition to UMass Amherst, the consortium members are the College of Menominee Nation; Columbia University; Cornell University; Michigan State University; Woods Hole Research Center; the universities of Missouri, Vermont, and Wisconsin-Madison; and researchers affiliated with the U.S. Geological Survey. This team has published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers, delivered hundreds of presentations, and developed over 25 interactive tools used by wildlife ecologists, state agencies, Native American tribes, town planning boards, and local conservation groups.

Jon Woodruff

In 2019, the Department of the Interior reviewed this strong track record and renewed support for the UMass Amherst-based center with a five-year, $4.5 million commitment; that commitment was increased by another $1 million in January 2020. Although politics have imperiled some climate change research funding, Palmer says, “We’ve had very strong congressional support and are hopeful that the increases in funding we’ve seen in the past will continue.”

Jon Woodruff, associate professor in the UMass Amherst Department of Geosciences and NE CASC co-principal investigator, affirms that Congress recognizes the critical importance of the center’s work. “Action has to start now in order to adapt to all the major climate-related changes that are coming to our region,” he says.

A Regional Approach

“Looking at climate change impacts regionally, rather than on a state or local basis, makes sense because of the commonalities among the Northeast’s ecosystems and wildlife,” says Bethany Bradley, NE CASC co-principal investigator and professor in the UMass Amherst Department of Environmental Conservation. Bradley points out that far-flung entities didn’t always have the opportunity to work together. For example, there wasn’t a regional strategy to combat invasive species before NE CASC developed the Regional Invasive Species and Climate Change (RISCC) Management Network. Last year, RISCC narrowed a list of more than 100 plants likely to spread in the Northeast due to the changing climate down to a ten-most-wanted list of plants that pose the greatest threat to native species, encouraging natural resource managers and others to strategically target nuisance neonatives, such as bur chervil and giant reed.

Bethany Bradley

RISCC also published a gardeners’ guide to desirable native plants, including blazing star, blue flag iris, and butterfly weed. Eighty percent of typical nursery stock is not native, explains Bradley, who foresees that as educated gardeners request natives, they will become more widely available.

Woodruff, who studies coastal systems and rivers and the interplay of natural and human-induced changes on these systems, adds that because culture, ecology, and geology vary greatly among regions, it makes sense to study the coasts regionally rather than nationally. Presently, his team is working on a NE CASC project focused on tidal marshes along the Hudson River. His research addresses such questions as: How much do we need to invest to keep these systems resilient? How can we apply what we learned from the costly restoration of the marshes of New York’s Jamaica Bay following flooding from Hurricane Sandy to this system? Through projects like this, Woodruff says, “We are providing useable, actionable science for stakeholders and practitioners.”

Bradley adds that NE CASC can respond to its stakeholders needs quickly—and often their needs are unpredictable. For example, she says, “In 2016, we were surprised by a major gypsy moth outbreak in the Northeast. We hired a postdoctoral student who was an expert in remote sensing, who produced maps of where the outbreak had occurred and its severity. Then researchers went out on the ground to see the effects of the outbreak: Were the trees surviving? What were the longer-term consequences? With changing precipitation patterns, gypsy moths will be an ongoing threat in our region, so it’s important to have this data.”

What’s Next
NE CASC supports the next generation of scientists who bring a pulse of new energy to the important work of adapting to climate change; the center trains up to 25 graduate students per year at UMass and other institutions. They have gone on to careers in departments of natural resources, federal fish and wildlife agencies, nongovernmental agencies, and in academia. “They have interdisciplinary training in the climate sciences and bring the culture of collaboration and stakeholder engagement they’ve experienced here with them to their careers,” says Addie Rose Holland ’10MS, deputy university director of NE CASC.

As Palmer prepares to retire as NE CASC’s director, he can reflect on the consortium’s success and take heart that these newly trained scientists, along with the consortium’s researchers and its principal investigators, are committed to NE CASC’s mission. Woodruff says, “When it comes to climate change, we can’t kick the can down the alley. Things need to be done right now, planning needs to take place, real decisions that are informed by science have to be made.

As for Bradley, she strives to stay undaunted by thoughts of the losses that the Earth and its people will sustain due to climate change. She says, “I look at it as a huge science experiment. We have enormous challenges ahead—we want to maintain diversity, keep our rare species, help them to adapt. Our goal is to focus on solutions.”

Tools and more information can be found at necsc.umass.edu.

Table of Contents

The Art of Resilience
Using art to combat climate change and disasters

Climate change is informing the work of faculty from across campus. Pictured here is “High Tide” by Carolina Aragón, assistant professor of landscape architecture, in the World Bank atrium. It is an abstraction of a marsh landscape, using translucent disks placed at varying levels, marking levels of past and predicted floods, bringing attention to the shifting boundary between land and water. It’s part of “The Art of Resilience” exhibition featuring global artists using their art to advance resilience to disasters and climate change. “High Tide” was first installed in 2016 on the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy in Boston. This 2019 version shows projected sea-level rise for Washington, D.C., for 2050 and 2060.

New Technology Uses Protein to Create Electricity from Moisture in the Air
Artists image of new UMass Amherst technology that generates energy from moisture in the air.

Electrical engineer Jun Yao and microbiologist Derek Lovley have developed a device that uses a natural protein to create electricity from moisture in the air, a new technology they say could have significant implications for the future of renewable energy, climate change, and the future of medicine.

Jun Yao

Yao and Lovley’s “Air-gen,” or air-powered generator, is a device with electrically conductive protein nanowires produced by the microbe, Geobacter. The Air-gen connects electrodes to the protein nanowires in such a way that electrical current is generated from the water vapor naturally present in the atmosphere. Their results have been reported in Nature.

Lovley, who has advanced sustainable biology-based electronic materials over three decades, says the technology has significant advantages over other forms of renewable energy because it does not require sunlight or wind, and it even works indoors. “It’s the most amazing and exciting application of protein nanowires yet,” he adds.

Derek Lovley

The current generation of Air-gen devices are able to power small electronics; Lovley and Yao expect to bring the invention to commercial scale soon. Their plan includes developing a small Air-gen “patch” that can power electronic wearables, such as health and fitness monitors and smart watches, which would eliminate the requirement for traditional batteries. They also hope to develop Air-gens to apply to cell phones to eliminate periodic charging.

“The ultimate goal is to make large-scale systems,” says Yao. “For example, the technology might be incorporated into wall paint that could help power your home. Or we may develop stand-alone air-powered generators that supply electricity off the grid. Once we get to an industrial scale for wire production, I fully expect that we can make large systems that will make a major contribution to sustainable energy production.”

Watch the Video:

Table of Contents

Lovley, Yao Receive Armstrong Fund for Science

John and Elizabeth Armstrong

Jun Yao and Derek Lovley were chosen to receive the 2020 Armstrong Fund Award for their work on air-gen technology. The $40,000 grant supports scaling up of the invention for practical applications. UMass Amherst benefactors John and Elizabeth Armstrong established their Fund for Science in 2006 to identify and support promising research directions that do not yet have enough data available for the principals to apply to standard funding channels.

Yao and Lovley are planning exploratory research to attract extramural grants from such sources as the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and to establish intellectual property for startups and commercialization.
“We are honored to receive the Armstrong Fund Award, both as a recognition of our discovery and the very critical support for us to further develop the technology for attracting extramural investment and commercialization potential,” says Yao.

Innovative Program Hits the Mark for Faculty Equity
umass amherst advance team

UMass Amherst does neither better nor worse than most large research universities in recruiting, retaining, and promoting women faculty in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Average is not good enough to meet the campus commitment to diversity and inclusion. Consequently, the university has put major muscle behind ADVANCE, a collaborative quest begun in 2018 to transform UMass Amherst into a place where every faculty member, regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, or sexuality, feels respected and has equal professional opportunities.

ADVANCE will take aim at factors small and large: from who takes notes at faculty sta meetings to who is promoted to full professor.

A Culture Shift
Faculty equity may seem unobtainable when, as professor of sociology and public policy Joya Misra says, “Even in 2020, gender and racial inequality remain persistent problems.” But the ADVANCE team believes their strategy to tackle obstacles to equity systematically can lead to institutional transformation. Misra, principal investigator for year two of the project, explains that success will require both structural change (new policies and practices) and cultural change. “You can have structural change, but if people don’t buy into its importance, it doesn’t make a difference,” she says. “But when structure and culture change together, it’s mutually reinforcing.”

Misra explains that the ADVANCE program is built around three R’s. When faculty members have the resources to do their work, equal access to relationships with colleagues, and equal access to recognition for their work, they will be more successful, and the institution will be more inclusive and equitable.

“Advancing faculty equity through collaboration is our focus at UMass,” adds Laurel Smith-Doerr, professor of sociology and this year’s principal investigator. “We have a theme for each year of ADVANCE. Last year was the year of faculty peer mentoring, this year will be inclusivity in the time of COVID-19, next year we’ll work on equitable research collaborations, and in our final year, we’ll focus on departmental governance.”

Tools for Success
The ADVANCE program has a number of arrows in its quiver to help target these goals, the first of which is the ADVANCE team itself. The team is led by principal investigators from computer sciences (James Allan), engineering (Sergio Breña), natural sciences (Buju Dasgupta, Jennifer Normanly, and Gabriela Weaver), and social sciences (Misra and Smith-Doerr), who have the experience, the data, and the drive to power change.

Left to right: Laurel Smith-Doerr, Buju Dasgupta, James Allan,

Donna Baron, Jennifer Normanly, Sergio F. Breña,

Gabriela Weaver, Joya Misra.

Second, ADVANCE is backed by the funds and broad reach of the National Science Foundation, which launched the initiative in 1999. Two years ago, UMass Amherst won a competitive $3 million, five-year NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation grant that allowed the campus to consolidate and strengthen its efforts to promote faculty equity. With the grant, UMass set its sights on the initiative—hiring project staff, conducting research, and offering extensive programming and tools. The newest tool will help faculty document how COVID-19 has affected their work to ensure they aren’t disadvantaged by child care responsibilities and other pandemic impacts. “Inequality can get ratcheted up in times of crisis,” points out Smith-Doerr.

Another ADVANCE advantage is its network of powerful campus allies: “We have the buy-in of Provost John McCarthy and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, who support inclusion, diversity, and equity,” says Misra. “We also have a number of super-supportive deans, and a wonderful partner in the faculty union.”

Signs of Change
Some changes are already policy, including new rules regarding peer mentoring, which research shows is critical to faculty retention. The university now requires departments to have mentoring plans for newly-hired faculty, annual faculty rewards for mentoring have been established, and faculty mentoring is part of annual faculty reports. “Mentoring is now something that is rewarded on campus, something that gets counted when we are evaluated,” says Misra. “That was an enormous win.”

ADVANCE deploys an annual cadre of faculty fellows who foster cultural change within their departments. Elizabeth Sharrow, associate professor of public policy and history, was one of last year’s fellows. She sees her role as bringing equity issues to the forefront. “We signal to colleagues that there is a lot of work being done around campus—not just
regarding gender, but regarding race and intersectionality— and there’s a network of us who are figuring out ways to do it,” she says. One of Sharrow’s priorities is encouraging research collaborations. “In the natural sciences and social sciences, collaboration is increasingly important to our research. Who gets to be part of the research team and who gets left out? That matters a lot and is a metaphor for how well departments function in other non research-related work.”

Professor Michele Cooke, an ADVANCE fellow in the department of geosciences and a faculty member since 1999, says that starting conversations around equity at UMass Amherst has become easier. “In the past, issues related to faculty gender and equity didn’t always gain traction,” she says. “Now that we have the data on these issues, and we have ADVANCE at our back, faculty can be more comfortable raising these issues; it gives power to our voices.”

Smith-Doerr notes that greater faculty equity will benefit UMass Amherst as a whole. “Faculty are the foundation of higher education,” she says. “When we support women and faculty of color, we support women students and students of color. A more diverse faculty will also result in better research—we know that through research on science itself.”

In 2023, at the conclusion of the NSF grant, the ADVANCE team will examine the data to assess how well UMass Amherst has succeeded in reducing gender, race/ethnicity, and other disparities among faculty, and they will work to extend and expand their efforts throughout campus. And they will push on. As Smith-Doerr notes, “Equity and inclusion is not something that you can take your eye off of. It’s a continual effort. It’s unending work.”


Table of Contents

Educator challenges institutions to rethink attitudes rooted in oppression
jamila lyiscott at UMass Amherst

Growing up as a first-generation American in a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, Jamila Lyiscott learned how to navigate the contrasts between her family’s Caribbean background and an educational system that demanded assimilation. “I was an A-student only because I knew how to do school,” recalls Lyiscott, now an assistant professor of social justice education in the UMass Amherst College of Education, a senior research fellow at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, and a nationally renowned spoken word artist.

As she became involved in her community, though, Lyiscott noticed a disconnect that she found increasingly disturbing. “The brilliance that exists throughout the African Diaspora wasn’t centered in school,” she says. “Instead, it was in these out-of-school spaces I could see the ways that brilliance was valued.”

This disconnect brought her to a turning point at age 19 when Lyiscott was speaking on an academic panel and a woman told her how articulate she was. “I knew that if she’d heard me speaking the way I spoke at home or with friends, she wouldn’t have said that,” says Lyiscott. “What was it at this intersection between language and race that allowed this woman to make an assessment of my value?”

Questions like this became the basis for Lyiscott’s viral TED talk, which has been viewed nearly 4.5 million times and led to appearances on national and international media outlets including Spike Lee’s “2 Fists Up,” NPR, and Huffington Post, as well as a commission by TED for a poem, titled 2053. Among other honors, she was recently recognized by the American Educational Research Association—the world’s top education research organization—with their “Outstanding Public Communication of Education Research” and “Scholar-Activist and Community Advocacy” awards.  

Through it all, Lyiscott has devoted her career to challenging the accepted notions of a pedagogy rooted in colonialism, with its emphasis on “civilizing” those from outside the traditional framework.

“Young people are grounded in experiences that people outside their communities can’t understand,” she says. “They’re the experts on what needs to happen in their world. Yet they’re bombarded with messages that they have to engage in assimilation.” By confronting this top-down education model, Lyiscott encourages young people to recognize their own experiences as valid, starting with naming what they’re feeling. “When they start getting those tools, they light up and become motivated. They begin to understand, ‘Oh, so that’s why I feel so uncomfortable. Why can’t I just be what I am?’”

Questioning who gets to produce knowledge is at the core of her teaching and speaking engagements, as well as at Cyphers for Justice, a program she founded at Columbia University that uses hip hop, digital literacy, spoken word, and social research methods to apprentice New York City high school students, incarcerated youth, and teachers as critical researchers.

It’s also central to her new book, Black Appetite. White Food. Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom, already in its second printing after selling out in just 10 days. The text serves as a practical guide for teachers seeking to increase their awareness and foster action around racial injustice and inequity—but in Lyiscott’s hands, the content goes beyond academic language, moving through poetry and personal narrative to disrupt readers’ preconceived notions and resonate on a gut level.

“It never goes well when you try to disrupt the institutions,” she laughs. But while many of her ideas have met with resistance, Lyiscott has worked to find spaces in which she can build allies who will help nourish her work. “It’s called fugitivity: moving from freedom to freedom. There are powerful people and places who are willing to be part of this work, but I have to find those spaces of freedom.”

Luckily, UMass Amherst is a place open to such concepts, as evidenced by Lyiscott latest project, a new Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research that she is launching along with education professor Keisha Green. “We’ll be collaborating around how to have local, national, and international conversations about the ways social and racial justice needs to be central to education across disciplines,” says Lyiscott. That means going beyond having Black History Month Programs, she says, to challenging institutions to rethink embedded standards of intellectualism.

“We need to move from cultural hierarchy to cultural pluralism,” she states, a belief that’s finding form in Lyiscott and Green’s Fulbright-funded project to take a group of educators to Ghana next summer to explore the ways ingrained methods of learning and teaching shape their curriculum. Lyiscott calls it “one of the first big steps to start situating my work globally.” She’s also beginning a Coyle Fellowship with the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Literacy Education.

“I’m proud of the way that I have drawn on the culture and history that my parents embedded in me,” says Lyiscott. “I’ve been able to remain true to the integrity of that journey, and when I’m authentic, other people feel like they have permission to be authentic.”

Table of Contents

UMass Amherst Has a Powerful New Tool for STEM Tech Development
i-corps meeting at UMass

UMass Amherst has a history of science innovation. During the First World War, when food was scarce, campus horticulturists taught students and homemakers the technology of food preservation. Fast-forward a century, and revolutionary ideas are flowing from campus labs: from genetically engineered trees that can capture more carbon dioxide, to the harnessing of a novel bacteria that generates electricity out of thin air (see previous article).

These revolutionary ideas are just a sample of technologies born from academic research. Yet the process of spinning technologies out of labs and developing them into products and services that people want and need is not an easy one.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps site program is designed to help. I-Corps awards funding to select universities such as UMass Amherst to engage STEM faculty and students in team-based early-stage technology commercialization experiential training. Sites provide advice, training, and modest funding to enable teams to explore real-world needs and to prepare for the National I-Corps Teams program.

Ken Carter

“This is technology innovation training specifically for STEM researchers,” says Ken Carter, principal investigator of the I-Corps site program and UMass Amherst professor of polymer science and engineering. Carter says having a site adds an important STEM-focused element to the campus’s innovation ecosystem. His motivation to make UMass Amherst an I-Corps site stems from his own experience in a 2016 National I-Corps Teams program, which he says was “eye-opening” and instrumental in helping to bring his team’s anti-fogging technology, FogKicker, to market.

The campus received its site award in October 2018 and quickly created customized training that is unique to the needs of the UMass Amherst community. The program has already served more than 180 faculty, students, and staff, says Karen Utgoff, UMass Amherst I-Corps site director. With Carter and co-principal investigators Professor Buju Dasgupta (psychological and brain sciences) and Burnley Jaklevic, PhD (director of UMass Amherst Technology Transfer Office), they created a program that supports individuals and teams as they start to test the waters of innovation.

Burnley Jaklevic

Warm-Up, Jump-Start, Rev-Up
The three-part program starts with a 90-minute Innovators Warm-Up, which provides a brief introduction to university-based innovation, technology commercialization, and the Lean Startup methodology.

Part two is the Innovator’s Jump-Start, which provides hands-on experience with the I-Corps approach and the scientific method applied to technology commercialization. The training is focused on customer discovery and getting participants out of their comfort zones to interview 10 potential customers. The interview process is a critical piece of the I-Corps training, says Utgoff. “It helps entrepreneurs to understand customer needs. Teams are able to test their assumptions and pivot based on lessons learned. Once complete, participants are prepared to go on to the National I-Corps program.”

The third part of the program, the Innovator’s Rev-Up, is self-paced and offers mini-grants. Participants work directly with Utgoff to do 20 more interviews and to deepen their understanding of customer needs.

Karen Utgoff

COVID Challenges
Once COVID-19 hit, the I-Corps team had to re-think the Jump-Start training. “Before COVID, the emphasis was on face-to-face interviews. You had to be in the room with the person,” says Utgoff. With safety protocols changing so quickly, the time was right to try things virtually. Utgoff, who was an adjunct instructor for the first all-virtual national program, worked with the local team to create an entirely virtual program. “We learned that video interviews work well, but we had to adjust our training to incorporate them,” she says. Building on these initial experiences, Carter secured supplemental funding from the NSF to pursue e-distribution of the I-Corps training models. The team will put the supplemental funding to work to build tools to make the program stronger and more impactful, no matter what the future holds in terms of social distancing.

Reflecting Diversity and Inclusion
Another special aspect of the UMass Amherst program is its commitment to diversity and inclusion. The team embraced the university’s diversity and inclusion mission to build training designed to address both aspects through emphasis on overcoming blind spots, with respect to interview dynamics and identification of potential customers.

“We are training people to be conscious of overlooked markets so that they are thinking about those markets from the get-go. We are raising awareness of blind spots that both interviewers and interviewees have, including about ethnicity and gender, which can be really important when you are talking about how people see the entrepreneur,” says Utgoff.

Buju Dasgupta

Co-principal investigator Buju Dasgupta, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and founding director of the campus’s Institute of Diversity Sciences, is the chief architect of this part of the curriculum. Dasgupta’s own research focuses on implicit bias, making her a natural fit for I-Corps diversity and equity training.

“A really important part of our I-Corps program is to attract greater diversity of students and faculty into innovation and entrepreneurial training,” says Dasgupta. The image of an entrepreneur as male and typically White or Asian may keep women and people of color away from innovation training because they don’t see themselves fit that mold, she adds.

Ina Ganguli

By conducting research in collaboration with economics associate professor Ina Ganguli, Dasgupta and the team are learning that many more women are attracted to I-Corps training when it is described as a launch pad to develop innovative ideas motivated by social good instead of being motivated by purely commercial interests. “Consistent with other research, this suggests that women’s career-related decisions are often driven by social impact. Having an opportunity to satisfy that motivation brings more people into innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Dasgupta.

When asked about lessons learned as the program wraps up its second year, Utgoff says, “We want to build programs that prepare people for the national I-Corps competition, but we also want to have a program that is really accessible to STEM researchers, social science researchers, anyone who has an idea for commercializing research. The STEM researchers are our sweet spot, but we are also mindful that there’s a lot of great STEM research going on beyond the traditional STEM departments. We want to hear from them. We want to help them because even if our program isn’t a good fit, it’s highly likely we can direct them to another program that is."


Table of Contents