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Physicist Elisabeth Gwinn Receives 2019 AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award

Half of the Ph.D. students Elisabeth Gwinn has trained have been women, a proportion that far exceeds the national average for women in physics. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Elisabeth Gwinn, Professor of Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the winner of the 2019 Lifetime Mentor Award, presented by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The award honors researchers who have mentored a significant number of underrepresented Ph.D. students, impacting the climate of a department, college or institution. Since becoming the University of California, Santa Barbara’s first female physics professor in 1989, Gwinn has played a pivotal role in improving the atmosphere of her department towards one of respect and increased opportunity for those traditionally absent from the world of physics.

“Beth’s commitment to ensuring that anyone, regardless of race, gender or economic status, should be able to succeed in STEM careers has transformed her department and improved the lives of countless students,” one of Gwinn’s former mentees, Stacy Copp, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote in the award nomination letter. “Her excellence as a mentor is apparent in the success of her former Ph.D. students and in the many programs she established to provide financial support for female and underrepresented minority Ph.D. students and science education to underserved communities.”

Half of Gwinn’s Ph.D. students have been women, a proportion that far exceeds the national average for women in physics. Likewise, nearly 20% of her undergraduate researchers have been underrepresented minority students, and nearly 30% have been women.

Many underrepresented students outside of her research group have also benefitted from Gwinn’s guidance. She has long advised the Women in Physics group in the Physics Department at UCSB doing so on her own time — and often donating her own money to fund events — for 16 years before her department acknowledged this as a formal faculty advising role. The Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need program, a federal program that Gwinn led on her campus, provided fellowships to women and underrepresented minority Ph.D. students in the university’s physics department. And her research group has provided undergraduate transfer students from two-year community colleges with the research experiences needed for admittance to STEM graduate programs.

In addition to her direct mentorship, Gwinn established programs to train the next generation of STEM role models. Working with graduate students, K-12 teachers and UCSB staff, she initiated the Let’s Explore Applied Physical Science program at the university and directed it throughout its 12 years of National Science Foundation funding. Under her leadership, LEAPS awarded graduate and undergraduate fellowships to UCSB students in the physical sciences and engineering to serve as scientist role models for children in local public elementary and high schools.

As NSF funding for such programs came to an end, Gwinn oversaw LEAPS’ transformation into the ongoing School for Scientific Thought at UCSB.  This program provides STEM graduate students the opportunity to design and teach classes to 9th-12th graders who come primarily from public high schools with high underrepresented minority enrollments.

“We are proud to recognize the work of mentors who contribute to expanding and diversifying the talent pool for STEM,” said Shirley Malcom, senior adviser to AAAS. “Especially critical are those who make this kind of decades-long commitment to guiding students from underrepresented groups through rigorous programs by supporting their work and encouraging their success. The science community is indebted to Beth Gwinn and other faculty mentors who promote such promise and potential.”

The AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award was established in 1991 and is directed toward individuals who have demonstrated scholarship, activism and community building over at least 25 years of mentoring experience. The award includes a $5,000 honorarium, a commemorative plaque and complimentary registration and travel to the AAAS Annual Meeting.

Gwinn will receive the award during the 185th AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 17, 2019.