Simmons Receives Award from NASA to Support Women and Minority STEM Students

Associate Professor of Chemistry and Physics Arpita Saha

This month, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) awarded $5 million to women's colleges and universities to help increase the retention of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Associate Professor of Chemistry and Physics Arpita Saha, who specializes in synthetic chemistry and researches metal-based cancer drugs, was instrumental in crafting a bold, innovative vision to help Simmons obtain this award and address the gender gap in STEM. For Saha and her collaborators, the mentorship of minority undergraduate students within STEM is indispensable to achieving equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Professor Arpita Saha learned that Simmons had received a prestigious award from NASA on her birthday. "My first reaction was, is it real, or am I dreaming? It was the best birthday ever because my DREAM came true. I also feel very humbled, encouraged, and thrilled by this incredible honor and opportunity to make a difference for students at Simmons and beyond," she says.

NASA's Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) created this unique funding opportunity for women-centered institutions to address the gender gap in STEM-related fields. As statistics reveal, while women are obtaining a higher percentage of undergraduate degrees than men, only 10% of women's degrees are in STEM. Moreover, female scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are far less represented in the workforce. The NASA award, which totals $5 million allocated to seven different women's colleges and universities across the country, is a milestone for Simmons.

NASA first announced this opportunity in February of 2023, and Professor and Chair of the Chemistry and Physics Department Rich Gurney encouraged Saha to lead the project and apply. Within a month, Saha and her collaborator Assistant Professor of Psychology Megan McCarty conceived the program, wrote the project proposal, and obtained fourteen letters of support from the Provost, the Department Chair, scholars, scientists, alumnae/i, corporate partners, and all collaborators.

Simmons received nearly $750,000 for their share of the total funds, which is the maximum amount allowed per institution. The funds will be allocated over a three-year period to implement Simmons' proposed project: Dynamic Research Education Academy for Mentoring Women in STEM (DREAM-WSTEM). Saha and her STEM colleagues Professors Donna Beers, Jane Lopilato, and Meghan Johnston are partnering with Michele Houston, Associate Director of Custom Learning Design & Development at the Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership, Professor Emerita of Education and Critical Race, Gender, and Cultural Studies Janie Ward, Professor of Counseling Psychology Tracy Robinson-Wood (Northeastern University), as well as Simmons alumnae/i, professional coaches, and several corporate partners. This initiative is designed to implement long-term and systemic changes at Simmons that may be emulated by other institutions.  

Associate Dean of Health Sciences and Interim Dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences Paul Geisler expressed how the NASA award will transform the future of STEM at Simmons: "This highly impactful and critical program will benefit our undergraduate women in STEM-related academic programs for years to come... For NASA to recognize the value and merits of the DREAM-WSTEM mentorship program, and the promise of social capital accumulation for our under-represented minorities and women scholars in the natural and behavioral sciences, is further proof... [that the program will] shape a more equitable and diversified future in STEM education and professional development."

Simmons University President Lynn Perry Wooten reflected on how the NASA award encapsulates Simmons' core values. "Supporting women and underrepresented groups in STEM further realizes the University's overall commitment to diversity, equity, and shaping future leaders. Receiving this wonderful news from NASA is especially timely, as Simmons officially unveiled its new, state-of-the-art science building."

Saha echoes these reflections: "Supporting women and minorities is especially important because STEM is historically a more masculine field... To address this inequity, we are promoting a comprehensive mentorship model," explains Saha. "Women and individuals with diverse sexual, ethnic, and racial identities benefit from these systems of support."

The central objective of DREAM-WSTEM is to build a holistic, dynamic, and culturally responsive mentorship program by intentionally recruiting students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, first-generation college students, and sexual and identity minorities. Mentors will help these students build confidence, formulate an identity within their STEM studies, and develop successful STEM career pathways at Simmons.

DREAM-WSTEM will also generate exciting opportunities for students beyond the STEM curriculum at Simmons. For instance, Simmons undergraduates will be able to apply for select internships at NASA. These unique opportunities will endow STEM students with valuable work experience and render Simmons alumnae/i more competitive on the job market.

A particular concern for Saha is to offer and customize mentorship for first-year undergraduate students. A lack of support networks and resources for these students can lead to poor retention. "Therefore, it is crucial that we provide mentorship from the very first year of one's college experience so that students can successfully navigate STEM curriculum," she says.

"Our goal is to implement evidence-based, best practice strategies that will improve recruitment, mentorship, professional development, research opportunities, and academic support. Ultimately, DREAM-WSTEM will enhance students' sense of belonging, academic retention, and STEM identity," explains Saha.

In Saha's view, mentorship is of paramount importance for minorities. "Mentorship helps to build a community of learners. Though I believe mentorship is needed for all students irrespective of their varied identities, studies support that it has a stronger impact on underrepresented minority (URM) students. Stereotyping is prevalent in STEM, whereas microaggression and ‘imposter syndrome' are common... In particular, URM students experience hostility in addition to other socio-economic barriers. Building a community helps to mitigate challenges, increase persistence, and foster a sense of belonging in STEM fields."

Saha has experienced the negative effects of microaggressions and gender and racial stereotyping in her own journey to becoming a chemist.

"My secondary education was in a girls' school and at that time there were no activities related to what's out there in the real world," she says. "I was in a bubble and all I did was study hard, but I lacked communication skills and the ability to navigate college life, access resources, and confront hostility... I struggled all the way through my undergraduate and even graduate studies. I finally realized that what I needed was mentoring! I cannot emphasize enough the importance of having mentors and sponsors." Consciously creating an inclusive and resourceful environment, and one that is rich in mentorship, embodies the purpose of DREAM-WSTEM. 

For Saha, what is most rewarding about her profession is nurturing young minds and expanding their avenues to excellence. "I believe in a growth-mindset," she says. "I see this take form when students find their true academic potential, develop their unique identity, and achieve success in the STEM field. This is the ultimate reward, and this is why I am a mentor, chemist, and professor."