Long before Facebook introduced its hot new Social Graph app, researchers in the ADVANCE project at NJIT were pioneering the use of social network mapping to help women scientists and engineers supercharge their careers.
"Universities are more than buildings and balance sheets. They're webs of human interaction," said Nancy Steffen-Fluhr, director of NJIT's Murray Center for Women in Technology and the ADVANCE project leader. "The complex structure of those webs is largely invisible to the people embedded in them, however -- especially women scientists and engineers. Because they're still relatively few in number, women faculty in science, technology, engineering and math can easily get disconnected from the information flow without even realizing it. That's where we come in: we make the invisible visible."
Support for this work was provided by a two-year $500,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Institutional Transformation Grant, one of only eight such grants awarded nationally in 2010.
Beginning in 2006 with an NSF "proof of concept" Institutional Transformation grant, the project mined the Internet for information about who at NJIT collaborates with whom, constructing an interactive database containing over 7,200 publications produced between 2000 and 2008 by NJIT faculty. Statistical modeling and visual mapping of this data established a strong correlation between collaboration and career advancement. It also revealed hidden gender patterns, some of them predictable, others surprising. Predictably, male faculty tended to collaborate with other male faculty far more than with female faculty. Surprisingly, for women faculty, network structure --in particular, being connected to well-connected colleagues -- was a more reliable predictor of career success than number of publications.
Building on this previous work, NJIT ADVANCE researchers are introducing network mapping tools for the next two years to make it easier for faculty to locate potential interdisciplinary research collaborators and to take snapshots of their professional networks as they develop over time.
"When new faculty arrive they often can't see the forest for the trees. We want to create a kind of GPS for career management that will give them an aerial view of the organizational landscape so they can find the most efficient path to the information and support they need to reach their goals," Steffen-Fluhr explained. These new network mapping tools will also help university administrators spot blockages in information flow, identify emerging leaders, and assess mentoring programs, she added.
In addition to studying interdisciplinary collaboration, NJIT ADVANCE encourages interdisciplinary collaboration in a variety of ways, including hosting cross-sector research showcases with industry. The interdisciplinary approach is reflected in the composition of the ADVANCE team: In addition to Steffen-Fluhr, who is an associate professor in NJIT's Humanities Department, the team includes Katia Passerini, Hurlburt Professor of Management of Information Systems, School of Management; Yi-Fang (Brook) Wu, associate professor, information systems department; and Robert Friedman, associate professor and chair of the humanities department.
The NJIT ADVANCE project arrives at a time when U.S. leaders are stressing that greater participation of women in U.S. science and technology leadership is essential if the nation is to maintain its global edge in innovation, Steffen-Fluhr explained.
"A new NSF-funded study shows that the ability of groups to come up with innovative solutions to problems increases with the proportion of women in the group. The purpose of the NSF ADVANCE program is to bring about institutional change so that women scientists and engineers will be in the room when the crucial decisions are made," she said. "The new network mapping tools we are developing at NJIT make an important contribution to that process, allowing researchers across the country to actually see institutional transformation as it occurs."
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