ADVANCE Florida Network provides benefits to visitors and hosts, says FIU professor

By Ashley Garcia

Sonia Underwood

Sonia Underwood is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and part of the STEM Transformation Institute, a multidisciplinary collaboration working across the university. Together they develop research-based education practices which effectively produce substantial increases in the number of well-prepared STEM professionals entering the workforce.

Underwood joined FIU in January 2016 as the first disciplinary-based education researcher in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Education research looks at how students learn, how they feel about the course and how they feel about themselves in that discipline, and use that information to develop ways to improve teaching.

Underwood first heard about the Advance Florida Network through an email from the Office to Advance Women, Equity & Diversity which runs the program. The AFN is part of FIU’s $3.2M National Science Foundation grant aimed at increasing the number of women faculty in STEM. The AFN provides mentoring, networking, collaboration and professional opportunities to STEM women research faculty and postdoctoral fellows among FIU, the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida. The goal of the AFN is to encourage collaboration and the sharing of information and resources in the areas of recruitment, promotion, retention and leadership for women.

Underwood thought it sounded like an interesting program. She hosted Jacquelyn Chini, an assistant professor of physics at UCF in 2017, and also Erin Saitta, an assistant professor in chemistry at UCF, in 2019. Both visitors knew Underwood from talks she had given at their departments and reached out to her to arrange their visits. She’s also met with another AFN visitor, Luanna Prevost, an assistant professor of integrative biology at USF, who was hosted by Sarah Eddy in 2019. Eddy is an assistant professor of the Department of Biological Sciences and STEM Transformation Institute faculty.

At the time, Chini was the only person in physics education research at UCF, and was trying to develop more interconnection between departments. FIU’s Stem Transformation Institute was a good example for her.

“When you’re trying to grow these interdisciplinary groups, it’s helpful to look at how the STEM Institute is organized and how it helps faculty,” says Underwood.

Similarly, Saitta was one of the first two people hired in chemistry education research at UCF. Coming to FIU meant the AFN visitors broadened their access and deepened their connections to the education research community.

Underwood believes the AFN provides a useful opportunity for visitors to learn what others are doing in the field. “Our visitors presented at our standing Tuesday lunch meetings, so they spoke with faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students. There are a lot of connections to be made.”

Underwood said she’s happy to be a host again. “I really like the ADVANCE Florida Network. It really helps people, especially if they’re new in their field. It’s so helpful to meet people instead of only reading about their work. And the community at the host institution gets the same opportunities for collaboration. There are definitely benefits to both sides of the program.”

This story first appeared on ADVANCE News.