(Editor’s note: Each month since May, the WVU Alumni Magazine online features a woman who has made her career in science or related field at the University. They each have a different, fascinating story to tell about how they’re contributing to human knowledge. Melissa Latimer’s story can also be found in the spring 2012 edition. Visit the site to find monthly updates on A Year of Women in STEM—science, technology, engineering and math.)
Up until this point, her life’s work has focused on the injustices people face from various sources, and she’s studied the causes and effects of discrimination and inequality based on class, race, gender and sexual orientation.
Her 18 years at WVU in the roles of researcher, department chair, teacher and advocate have prepared her for her current challenge of taking on gender disparity in academia.
Latimer is the director of the WVU ADVANCE Center, part of a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation that is intended to recruit, retain and promote women in the science, technology, engineering and math fields. In this role, she connects social science and science with the University’s mission to spur innovation.
ADVANCE is working to form networks between female scientists in different academic departments, discover and address needs in the area of work-life satisfaction, and offer financial support to women and other under-represented faculty in NSF-funded disciplines at all stages of their careers.
“For me, it’s about getting the brightest minds and the most diverse ideas coming to the table so that you can come up with the best solution,” she said.
Nurturing scientists is good for the country’s economy and creates a solid international footing, she said
Latimer made her way into science in an environment similar to what she and others are creating at WVU.
As a freshman at Millsaps College in Mississippi, she was a pre-med student fascinated with biology and math.
She’d always done well in these subjects, but it took one sociology class and her desire for equality to change her path. From childhood, she had always wanted to know why people behaved the way they did and why things were the way they were.
“I was very interested in how things worked,” Latimer said. “I liked taking things apart to see how they were connected. I found that what I was really more interested in is not just how bodies work but how minds work, and that got me more interested in social science.”
She also had a professor who told her that she should go to graduate school in sociology. He pointed her toward all the things that would get her closer to that goal: the honors program, an undergraduate thesis and scholarships.
He wrote letters to help her get a full ride to graduate school.
“There are moments at every part of the process where you can step out,” she said. “And some of my peers did.”
As a professor, she has offered the same assistance to her students. She’s seen students, male and female, who are interested and engaged in the classes she’s taught.
“I encourage them,” she said. “I tell them ‘I will write letters for you. I will support you in this process.’”
She, too, looks over their graduate application letters and helps prepare them for the challenges of graduate school.
Giving opportunity to the disadvantaged
Latimer has created positive change through her teaching and research and in serving the state of West Virginia.
Understanding and documenting patterns of inequality were at the heart of her research long before she took up the cause of broadening the role women play in science at WVU.
In her career at WVU, she’s sought to understand the many reasons—be they psychological, economical, sociological or political—why inequality exists and persists in society, with an end goal of using social science to improve the lives of those who are at the bottom rungs of society.
“What I’ve been most interested in studying is why, how, the consequences of people being systematically left out of full participation in our society,” she said. “I’m drawn to that. In some ways I’m drawn to the underdogs; people in the margins who are excluded.”
A major part of her life’s work has examined the consequences of welfare reform on the poor in rural areas. After Congress passed the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, Latimer teamed up with her WVU colleagues to survey those on public assistance over eight years. Her work culminated in a book “Welfare Reform in West Virginia.”
Their results became legislative testimony and were shared with those on the frontlines of social services programs in the state, she said. The findings encouraged policy changes to better serve the poorest in the state and informed the national welfare reform debate.
She believes that it takes knowledge and understanding to remove inequality. Advances such as anti-discrimination laws blossomed from the study and knowledge of societal inequalities.
When Latimer began teaching her “Women and Men in Society” class, the statistics said that women on average made 50 percent of the salary men made. Now the disparity has decreased to approximately 70-75 percent of what men make.
“Inequality can be reduced,” she said. “It can be eliminated, and there’s no way we can do that without understanding how and why. You stand no chance of change unless you do.”
By Diana Mazzella
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