Liza Comita, a professor of tropical forest ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, was awarded the 2016 Yale Postdoctoral Mentoring Prize on Sept. 23 for her work with female postdoctoral students.
According to the University Office for Postdoctoral Affairs, this annual prize recognizes the faculty member who best exemplifies the role of mentor for their postdoctoral scholars. According to Director of Postdoctoral Affairs John Alvaro, nominations from postdoctoral researchers were reviewed by a committee consisting of University faculty members who have previously been recognized for commitment to mentoring.
Alvaro added that Comita’s nomination was especially notable because she was nominated by nine different postdoctoral scholars, all of whom she engaged with through the Women in Science at Yale mentoring program.
“She was selected by the committee for having such a far-reaching impact,” Alvaro said. “It is rare for a faculty member to be able to influence so many postdocs at once and in such varied ways.”
According to its website, WISAY is a campus-wide network group of over 500 undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral students committed to providing Yale scientists with the opportunity to meet leading female scientists from Yale and around the country.
Comita said she works with a group of eight to nine postdoctoral mentees through the WISAY mentoring program, and that they meet on a monthly basis to discuss issues ranging from time management to interview preparation to job applications. While the group discusses issues of gender and diversity, the meetings tend to revolve around providing general career advice, she added.
“The most gratifying part of winning the award was not recognition for mentoring my own postdocs, but recognition of WISAY and the value of the program,” Comita said.
Sara Kuebbing, one of the postdoctoral researchers who nominated Comita, expressed her appreciation for how WISAY provides a support system for women in STEM.
According to Kuebbing, Comita’s dedication to mentorship is evident from the fact that none of the women who nominated her had worked in her lab. Kuebbing added that as a faculty member, Comita already mentors the graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who work directly under her. In order to provide guidance to her WISAY mentoring group, Comita took time out of her schedule and even set up individual meetings with her mentees to offer additional advice, Kuebbing said.
“There are a lot of wonderful faculty members who are great mentors on campus, but often their mentorship is within the sphere of people who are postdocs in their lab,” Kuebbing said. “Liza has stepped that up and gone above and beyond.”
University Deputy Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Richard Bribiescas presented Comita with the award at a postdoctoral potluck event hosted by the Yale Postdoctoral Association on Sept. 23. In a brief speech, Comita spoke highly of WISAY and emphasized the importance of supporting women in STEM fields and in academia generally.
In an interview with the News, Bribiescas said that the issue of gender equity in the sciences continues to be a serious concern — not just at Yale but in academia in general. Bribiescas added that women in STEM face issues of implicit bias in the hiring process and in the workplace.
“I would like to think that gender bias in STEM is waning, given the fact that in many departments of various schools we have seen an increase in women scientists, women in leadership and women within the tenure ranks,” Bribiescas said. “But despite the fact that we’re making these advances, it’s still clear that we have a long way to go.”
According to Bribiescas, in order to increase gender equity in STEM fields, several departments are mandating implicit bias training, especially for faculty search committees looking to create more diverse, inclusive candidate pools. He emphasized the importance of not only raising awareness of implicit bias, but also implementing strategies for tangible change.
Comita said that although explicit forms of bias have faded over time, implicit bias remains a pertinent issue. However, she expressed hope that women looking to pursue careers in science and academia are not deterred by obstacles they may face.
“I don’t think women should be discouraged from going into STEM fields, where they think it’s such an uphill battle that they should do something else instead,” Comita said. “It’s a good time to be a woman in STEM fields, and there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful and excited about a career in STEM.”
Comita joined the faculty of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in July 2014.