Race, ethnicity, gender, family income to be studied as metrics for STEM success

March 30th, 2015
Sarah Ovink, an assistant professor of sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, has won a 2015 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Development CAREER Award to study how race, ethnicity, gender, and family income are linked to career success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, known as STEM fields.

The CAREER Award provides multiyear support for especially promising junior faculty members.

With the gap widening between low-wage jobs and highly paid professions, Ovink's research centers on inequalities in students' college achievement and subsequent career success.

Its goals are to identify the influences behind this variance and to develop programs that increase the numbers of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields.

A key component of Ovink's research will be interviews with more than 100 undergraduate students in STEM and non-STEM majors at Virginia Tech and focus groups with peer interviewers.

Over the next five years, Ovink and a team of graduate and undergraduate research assistants will follow up with these students as they complete their degrees and begin their careers.

"Existing studies typically focus on either gender or race-ethnicity as a primary factor influencing academic and career achievement," Ovink said. "However, we know that there is no universal 'woman's experience,' just as there is no universal 'African-American experience' when it comes to college and career. This research will take into account the intersection of gender with family income, race, and ethnicity."

The grant is expected to total $453,359 over five years.

"I am grateful to the NSF for this opportunity and to Virginia Tech for supporting this project from its earliest stages. The establishment of InclusiveVT shows a growing energy on campus to develop programs and improve practices to broaden support for historically underrepresented groups in all aspects of their undergraduate experiences, and I am eager to follow the progress of this new effort," Ovink said.

Ovink's scholarly interests have primarily focused on educational inequality by race and gender using qualitative and quantitative methods of inquiry. Other research interests include immigration, Latino/Latina populations, and undocumented students.

She recently published an article in the journal Gender & Society that examines trends in Latinos'/Latinas' postsecondary pathways and life course decisions over a two-year period. Ovink discusses this article in a podcast titled "They Always Call Me an Investment: Gendered Familism and Latino/a College Pathways."

Besides examining individual students' choices in her current research, Ovink will link her findings to national data in designing policies with broad social relevance.

"Individual pathways and choices are just one piece of the puzzle," Ovink said. "We must also study how institutional practices affect students' experiences and expectations across categories of gender, ethnicity, and income."

The NSF CAREER Award also recognizes outstanding and innovative research that supports the mission of the recipient's university.

"Virginia Tech, like other universities across the country, is deeply invested in seeing STEM access translate into STEM success," said Elizabeth Spiller, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. "As Sarah's research suggests, though, technology alone is often not enough: Her NSF Career award project takes a multifaceted sociological approach in order to help find ways to solve what is a complex human problem. Sarah's research also exemplifies the academic commitment across the College to achieving a vibrantly inclusive community."

Ovink will collaborate with Virginia Tech's Office of Assessment and Evaluation for research services and testing of students' learning gains, and with the university's Undergraduate Research Institute to integrate research activities with current courses and to develop new programs and policies.

Serving on Ovink's advisory board are Virginia Tech faculty members David Brunsma and Toni Calasanti, professors in the Department of Sociology; David Embrick, an associate professor at Loyola University, Chicago; and Anne-Marie Nuñez, an associate professor at University of Texas, San Antonio.

Ovink joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2011 as an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology. She holds a doctoral degree and a master's degree from the University of California at Davis and a bachelor's degree from Kalamazoo College.

Ovink's research has been supported by faculty grants from the college of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and from the American Educational Research Association.

She is completing work on a book titled "Race, Class, and Choice in Latino/a Higher Education: Pathways in the College-for-All Era" under contract with Palgrave Macmillan.

Provided by Virginia Tech

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