UTSA faculty members selected to join national STEM leadership program
UTSA faculty members selected to join national STEM leadership program

This article originally appeared in UTSA Today by Chloe Johnson.


OCTOBER 31, 2022 — UTSA professors Johnelle Sparks and Saadet Toker Beeson have been named fellows in the fourth cohort of the iAspire Leadership Academy — a development program aimed at helping faculty from underrepresented groups in STEM rise to leadership roles in higher education.

Fellows learn effective leadership skills tailored to the higher education environment and gain strategies for creating institutional change in their current and future leadership positions. Sparks and Beeson will join 16 faculty and administrators from around the country who were selected through a competitive, holistic review process to attend the program.

“This is a great opportunity for our STEM faculty to learn and develop leadership skills that they’ll be able to use in a tangible way at UTSA,” said Heather Shipley, UTSA senior vice provost of academic affairs and dean of University College. “Faculty play a central role in the success of our diverse student body, and the iAspire Academy will support our STEM academic leaders on their own career paths while providing them with new resources to help their students.”


“Faculty play a central role in the success of our diverse student body, and the iAspire Academy will support our STEM academic leaders on their own career paths.”



johnelle sparksSparks is the senior associate dean for faculty success and administration and a professor in the Department of Demography in the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy. Sparks’ research expertise includes analysis of spatial inequality and disparities in health and mortality, maternal and child health, biomarkers and premature aging and Latinos in higher education. The academy will help Sparks build on her prior leadership experience, which includes three years as chair and five years as graduate advisor of record for her department.

Sparks has participated in previous iAspire workshops and became a certified facilitator for their Entering Mentoring curricula, which was administered through the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“I am very excited to represent UTSA in the iAspire Leadership Academy. I really enjoyed my experience with the Entering Mentoring program, which Judy Verdon and I now teach to faculty at UTSA,” Sparks said. “I hope to learn new ways to develop a leadership pipeline in my own college and for UTSA as a whole that can provide faculty with opportunities for professional development and help them set new professional goals.”

Toker Beeson is the associate dean for community engagement and an associate professor in the UTSA School of Architecture and Planning in the Margie and Bill Klesse College of Engineering and Integrated Design. She oversees the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) program, which brings together students from different majors to design and develop engineering projects that serve the local community. Her areas of expertise include the structural analysis and condition assessment of historical structures, structural design in architecture and the effects of natural disasters on structures.

“Participating in this academy will help me connect with other peer leaders so we can work toward the common goal of increasing diversity and inclusion in higher education leadership,” Toker Beeson said. “I’m honored to be given the chance to participate in the academy to learn as much as possible and utilize these skills in my own leadership roles at UTSA.”

The leadership academy’s immersive, two-year design allows fellows to fully focus on learning core curriculum and fostering personal development during the first year of the program. During the second year, fellows put their new leadership knowledge to use in real time while completing an in-residence project at their institution in collaboration with their university leaders.


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Previous leadership academy fellows include Nicole Beebe, professor and chair of the Department of Information Systems and Cyber Security in the Carlos Alvarez College of Business; Astrid Cardona, professor and chair of the College of Sciences’ (COS) Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology; Kelly Nash, professor and associate dean for faculty success in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the COS; and Nicole Wicha, professor in the Department of Neuroscience, Developmental and Regenerative Biology in the COS.

The iAspire Leadership Academy is part of the Aspire Alliance’s Institutional Change Initiative, which seeks to increase the diversity of STEM educators and leadership in colleges and universities across the nation and to create academic environments where underrepresented faculty are valued, retained and thrive. The alliance is led by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the University of Georgia. Funding comes from the National Science Foundation.

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