Female Professor: Inspiring young minds and pushing for inclusion

Posted on Jun 8 2017 - 10:29am by Margo Lee

In the basement of Shoemaker Hall, one particular hallway of rooms is filled with years of research and testing. Students and professors spend countless hours conducting research and testing samples.

One of these rooms houses the lab of associate biology professor Sarah Liljegren, whose focus is on researching the regulation of gene expression in a model plant species. Liljegren’s genetic classes and labs are the basis for her chemistry and biology majors to continue on in the research and medical field.

In the past year, Liljegren was awarded a grant that provides more than $600,000 to research the “Roles of Organ Boundaries in Arabidopsis Abscission.” During her 11 years at Ole Miss, she has recruited a number of students from the STEM department to the Sally McDonnell-Barksdale Honors College to train them to be the next generation of scientists.

There are multiple professors who offer the same type of lab experience to undergraduates, and students are able to choose which lab they want to conduct research in. Students choose their research lab off of many factors, but which professor leads the lab can have a profound impact on students.

Hayden Malone, a junior chemistry major, has been working in this genetics lab for two years and has brought in many more of her classmates.

“I chose to work in Professor Liljegren’s lab because I had heard great things about her work. As a female, it is inspiring to be able to work under someone as renowned in the scientific field as she is,” Malone said.

According to U.S. News and World Report, women comprise 39 percent of chemists and material scientists. Women making up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce in general.

Professors such as Liljegren are taking steps to train the next generation of scientists and ensure that all genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations are given an equal opportunity to perform in this field.

“I think that the ideal situation for recruiting people from all backgrounds into STEM professions is if the professors who teach and train students should reflect the diversity of the U.S. population in terms of gender, ethnicity, orientation, etc.,” Liljegren said.

“If you can see people who look like you doing jobs you might be interested in, it’s easier and more comfortable to visualize yourself doing those jobs too,” Liljegren said.

Most students wishing to pursue a medical or other science profession are required to have a certain amount of research hours and experience.

Luke Leary, a junior biology major, is a current researcher in Liljergren’s lab who has just started working with her. He plans to attend medical school following this upcoming year.

“From the little experience I have had working for Dr. Liljegren, she has been nothing but a positive influence not only in aiding me personally in developing research skills but also in facilitating a lab environment that encourages its’ workers to be productive while also keeping the big picture of the current project in mind,” Leary said.

Leary is one of five males in Liljeren’s genetics lab and admires her progress as a female professor at the university.

“In a department filled with mostly male professors, Dr. Liljegren represents more than just the female minority, but is also very involved with certain decision-making processes within the department, from what I can tell,” Leary said. “Her laid-back, yet still professional way of running the lab has created an experience for me above and beyond what I could have imagined when I went into research.”

Many students feel this way and appreciate her enjoyable environment of research and new discoveries. Liljergen agrees the more she is able to identify with students the more comfortable they feel.

Liljegren takes pride in seeing students take what they have learned in her genetics lab and turn them into their own understanding in events such as undergraduate symposiums or honor seminars.

“My favorite situation is when I see a student give a presentation where, because they have to explain to their peers why they did a set of experiments and what the results mean, it clicks, and they see the big picture of the project,” Liljegren said.

Liljegren’s impact on her students is more than that of simply a mentor and teacher; she serves as an inspiration for them to pursue their dreams even in the face of adversity.