President Johnson leading the way for women in STEAMM, students say

Posted: November 17, 2021
President Johnson speaking with students and faculty
President Johnson speaking with engineering students

As an engineer who leads one of the largest institutions of higher learning in the country, Ohio State University President Kristina M. Johnson is setting an example for young women who want to explore careers in science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics and medicine (STEAMM), say female engineering students who have taken on leadership roles themselves.

In advance of Johnson’s Nov. 19 investiture, in which she will be officially installed as Ohio State’s 16th president – and only the second woman – students offered perspectives on the importance of representation.

Seeing women in decision-making positions can have a positive impact, said Blythe Dumerer, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student who is president of Ohio State’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE).

“I think it helps to see that this is possible and that there’s various ways that you can continue on and pursue your dream, especially with how accomplished Dr. Johnson is,” Dumerer said. “That’s a really big influence at the moment for me. And once that happened, it was kind of like opening my eyes to all the various women who are in engineering.”

Johnson has emphasized education as an equalizer and focused on furthering the mission of land-grant universities to empower people to improve their lives. She announced the RAISE initiative during her State of the University address this year as part of her plan to hire 350 new Ohio State faculty. Short for Race, Inclusion and Social Equity, RAISE is focused on hiring and retaining faculty whose work addresses social equity and racial disparities across a range of disciplines.

In October, Ohio State announced a partnership with Fifth Third Bank to invest $20 million in the Near East Side of Columbus over the next three years. The investment is part of Ohio State’s work with Partners Achieving Community Transformation (PACT) and the national nonprofit organization Enterprise Community Partners to distribute the funds via loans, grants and small business support.

PACT, which has been active in the majority-African-American neighborhood for more than 10 years, started out as a partnership between Ohio State, the city of Columbus and the Columbus Metropolitan Housing Authority. PACT will use the Fifth Third funds to expand health services and create financial literacy and savings programs for area youth, among other goals.

Earlier this fall, Ohio State announced STEAMM Rising, a new partnership with the city of Columbus, the Columbus City Schools and Columbus State Community College to develop STEAMM talent in Columbus. STEAMM Rising is focused on growing the next generation of teachers and students focused on innovation, and ensuring that talent thrives in the university’s Innovation District and elsewhere.

Encouraging women to go into STEAMM has long been a priority for Johnson, who holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Prior to joining Ohio State in 2020, she served as the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY).

At SUNY, Johnson launched PRODiG (Promoting Recruitment, Opportunity, Diversity, Inclusion and Growth), setting a goal to hire 1,000 underrepresented minorities and women in STEAMM by 2030.

Prior to her tenure at SUNY, Johnson founded and served as CEO of several successful science and technology companies, served as under secretary of energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, and held academic leadership positions at institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and Duke University.

As dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, she worked closely with engineering faculty to increase the percentage of women faculty from 6% to 19%. In addition, Johnson served as professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder and as director of the National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center for Optoelectronic Computing Systems at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University.

Johnson and Ayanna Howard, dean of Ohio State’s College of Engineering, who is African American, demonstrate that a viable career in engineering is a tangible reality for women, said Kamila Thompson, 22, a fourth-year electrical and computer engineering student and past NSBE president.

“When you see it, you’re able to envision it for yourself,” Thompson said. “With the current dean of the college, Dr. Ayanna Howard, just seeing a Black woman in that role, it’s very inspiring for people that are going through the programs. It gives them more hope to stay on and study a little harder and reach out to people because they see what the school can do and where it can take you.”

Kavya Narayanan, 21, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student who is president of Ohio State’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, said Johnson and Howard represent progress in academia, the engineering field and society at large.

“I commend Ohio State for making that decision to have President Johnson lead our university. I think that is a huge advancement in being more accepting of women in higher positions. I think also having Dr. Ayanna Howard as our new dean of the College of Engineering, she has been a great role model,” Narayanan said. “Especially being a woman of color, that adds just another element of being like, ‘This is something I can do.’”

by Chris Bournea, Ohio State News