Leading Women in STEM

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Grisselle Centeno remembers loving to play math games with her family. As an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, she channeled that love of math and engineering into an industrial engineering degree. A passion for teaching adults led her to relocate to Florida and earn a Ph.D. in industrial engineering and management systems from the University of Central Florida. That led to an 18-year tenure at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Now, after recently joining the faculty of Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, Centeno is making history as one of only two professors in Florida to be selected for the prominent and competitive Executive Leadership in Academic Technology, Engineering and Science program.

The ELATES fellowship at Drexel University in Pennsylvania is designed to advance senior women faculty in academic STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and  mathematics—into effective leadership roles. The yearlong program focuses on honing leaderships skills and overall knowledge of organizational dynamics.

The program will help Centeno build and lead a team in her role as director of the health systems and engineering program at Florida Poly. The program is a hybrid of health care delivery and systems engineering, and offers an opportunity for STEM leaders to help solve health care challenges.

“Health care professionals are 85 percent women,” Centeno says. “With our program we want to reach out to young women and men who want to work in health care, but not as a doctor or a nurse. We want to show how a degree in a STEM discipline can improve health care challenges.”

Through the ELATES fellowship, Centeno is excited to connect with other women in STEM disciplines and grow her leadership skills. “As academics, we normally do not get trained to be effective instructors, to be successful researchers, or to lead in our departmental units. It’s assumed that because we completed a Ph.D, and have been in college for an extended period of time, we are equipped to do the job well,” Centeno says. “I value this opportunity to get professionally trained to lead with purpose and effectiveness.”

The STEM field long has been dominated by men. Nationally, only 18 percent of women pursue a career in STEM-oriented fields. “The statistics are not encouraging,” Centeno says. “We have to continue to welcome and incorporate women into the field. Through our program, and others like it, we’re showing the opportunities are there and we’re trying to build the critical mass.”

As a Hispanic woman, Centeno is a double minority in the field. She never felt her gender or ethnicity were a roadblock in her career. “I’m more concerned about the roadblocks we put up for ourselves,” she says. “Too often people say you can’t do something, or you speak differently, or you look different, and those become roadblocks. But you can overcome those and get out of your own way.”

Ultimately, Centeno says, a STEM-oriented degree helps for anyone who enjoys solving problems. And this isn’t limited to traditional fields. “There are so many opportunities that people aren’t familiar with,” she says. “With a degree in STEM, you can have a role in a lot of places, like health care and teaching. My advice is to read a lot and do your research.” ♦

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