Inclusive excellence fuels our mission to develop adaptive problem-solvers and in a time of incredible transformation, both in thought and practice, we have learned the significance of uplifting and empowering one another.
During Women’s History Month, the Office of Research, Innovation & Impact announced the Women of Impact Awards as an inaugural effort to embrace and empower women, who through their work at our university, are laying the groundwork for a better future.
Faculty and staff nominated more than 400 outstanding women who have contributed to our identity as a world-class research enterprise. Among other criteria, the members of this class were selected by the committee based on their commitment to our mission and values, an application of skills toward discovery and innovation, the enrichment of our community, and the empowerment of others to ensure lasting change.
Five College of Agriculture and Life Sciences faculty were included in the inaugural class, including Elise Gornish, Theresa Crimmins, Ashley Snider, Karletta Chief, and Raina Maier.
Elise Gornish never thought she had what it takes to become a scientist. Now she's a Cooperative Extension Specialist and early career leader in ecological restoration with more than 65 journal articles and 250 science presentations under her belt.
“I wasn't like a cradle scientist. I had a brother who was encouraged to do science and engineering and I was always told English and business, so that's what I did,” Gornish said. “I was in the business world for a couple of years, making good money, but I realized I wasn't happy. I thought, well what am I going to do?”
After making a list of things she liked – being alone, eating ice cream, being with plants – she realized she might like a career as a forest ranger.
“I didn't know anything about forestry or being a forest ranger. So I literally googled: how do you become a forest ranger? And there was all this stuff about ecology,” Gornish recalled. “And I had never seen that word before in my life, I didn't know what it meant. I had never taken a science course in my life, I wasn’t a good student.”
Nevertheless, she enrolled in night courses at Hunter College in New York City. The school didn’t have an ecology program but did offer cellular and molecular biology.
“It was the first time ever in my life that I was like whoa, I like this stuff. I started learning how the world worked, learning something tangible about the world around me, and I realized that I was doing really well,” Gornish said. “I was like oh, I’m not stupid. I'm not a bad student. Science is for me, even though I was told the complete opposite my whole life.”
Theresa Crimmins’ love for the natural world was born out of family trips to the national parks, today she directs a network of citizen scientists whose shared observations help us better understand our changing climate.
Theresa Crimmins’ connection to nature wasn’t born overnight, it grew out of time spent outside and on family camping trips.
“We would take pretty extensive vacations in our pop-up camper to national parks around the country. Seeing the natural phenomena was, I think, what really sparked in me an appreciation for being outside,” Crimmins said. “The plants, the geology, how water can cut and shape canyons, it really grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.”
Today she is a research professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment and the director of the USA National Phenology Network, based at the University of Arizona.
“The primary aim of our program is to engage professional scientists, natural resource managers and volunteers across the country in tracking when plants and animals undergo seasonal life cycle events throughout the growing season,” Crimmins said.
The USA-NPN team and other scientists around the world use these observations to better understand how the timing of seasonal events like spring wildflower blooms and bat or butterfly migrations are changing.
“It may not seem like a big deal for cherry trees to bloom a few weeks earlier than they did a few decades ago but shifts in the timing of events like this – termed phenology – has major consequences for species that depend on those flowers as a food source to be available at a particular time,” Crimmins said. “Changes in phenology actually have major implications for nearly every aspect of our lives, including human health, agriculture, tourism, wildfire and more.”
Ashley Snider studies lipids and the role they play in intestinal biology and diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer, but she believes her greatest impact is in her role as a mentor to the next generation of scientists.
“The science is very exciting, and I think we’re going to learn some great things,” she says. “But interacting with the students, seeing them grow, helping them get where they want to be – that is my favorite part of my job.”
One of the reasons she takes mentoring so seriously is her own experience being trained by generous and inspiring mentors. “I did my Ph.D. in a lab with an amazing woman and scientist who was a phenomenal mentor,” she recalls. “She let me fail. She didn’t stand over me and watch over my shoulder. When I struggled, she encouraged me to do what I found exciting, follow the path I wanted to follow, and I’d figure it out. And I did.”
Now in her own research lab, Dr. Snider is committed to offering her students that same sort of encouragement and support to follow their own curiosity. “Support to independence is really what I try to provide,” she explains. “Ideally, the student becomes the master of their domain. So they become the expert, sometimes even surpassing the mentor. And it’s a really nice thing when that happens.”
When it comes to using science to serve Indigenous communities, Karletta Chief stands in a league of her own. Chief studies how climate change and industries, such as mining, impact Native nations and their water.
Chief is Diné and is from the Bitter Water Clan, one of the four original Navajo Nation clans. At the University of Arizona, she is an associate professor and extension specialist in the Environmental Science department. By connecting her cultural heritage with her profession, Chief successfully studies how climate change and industries, such as mining, impact Native nations and their water.
In 2021, Chief became the first director of the Indigenous Resilience Center,(link is external) a new University of Arizona research facility focusing on interdisciplinary projects with Native nations. Through this center and in her own Environmental Science research, Chief said keeping Native nations’ perspective and knowledge involved is essential.
“It is critical that Native nations drive the research questions based on their priorities and long-standing local knowledge, and that the approaches involve decolonized and indigenized approaches with Indigenous scientists actively leading these efforts,” Chief said. “Furthermore, the resilience partnerships will aim to involve students who want to give back to their communities through community-based projects that are action oriented and solution driven."
According to Chief, her work and her personal life are tied to the women who came before her and those who will follow in her footsteps after. “I stand on the shoulders of all the women before me including Adzáá Tó’díchíínii, my great-great grandmother, who through her weaving survived the internment camp at Bosque Redondo during the Long Walk by weaving beautiful Navajo rugs and exchanging them for food,” Chief said. “Now as a professor, wife and mother, I strive to give back to future generations of women leaders!”
When Raina Maier was only four years old, she knew she had a passion for the environment. Today she is a prominent figure in environmental research both at the University of Arizona and beyond.
Her research mainly falls into two fields: microbial surfactants and soil microbiomes. Surfactants are molecular compounds that are typically used to break surface tension between water and air, which are used in many ways, such as cleaning detergents.
Maier’s research led her and a colleague to discover how to make microbial surfactants synthetically and use them in environmental remediation and to remove valuable and contaminate metals from water sources.
Maier’s other research focus is on soil microbiomes in arid environments, with a particular focus on mine tailings, which are the leftover waste materials from mined areas.
To increase the amount of research related to mine tailings and soil health, Maier co-founded the Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining at the University of Arizona. Maier is also the director of the University of Arizona Superfund Research Center, a multimillion-dollar research program that is funded by the National Institutes of Health.
As part of the inaugural class of the Women of Impact, Maier said that the road to success for future awardees may not be easy. “Don’t expect it to go smoothly, but keep at it and it will pay off,” Maier said.