Oral-History:Heidi Ries

Heidi Ries

Heidi Ries was born in Marion, Ohio in 1960. She attended Ohio State University and obtained a B.S. and M.S. in Physics in 1982 and 1984, respectively. She completed a Ph.D. in Applied Physics at Old Dominion University in 1987. Following completion of her M.S., she began teaching at Norfolk State University, where she helped organize school-wide assessment plans, establish the Center for Materials Research, and develop the Graduate science program. Leaving Norfolk State for the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), Ries began her current role as Dean for Research, managing and facilitating faculty work, and establishing new research centers. She served briefly as Interim Dean for the Graduate School of Engineering and Management, earning her the 2013 Air Force Exemplary Civilian Service Award.

Her research expertise focuses on spectroscopy, magnetic resonance, materials characterization, nonlinear optical materials, polymers, and radiation effects. Her involvement in developing STEM education, such as the NSF's ADVANCE program, has earned her several awards and honors, including the 2011 National Latina Distinguished Service Award and the 2011 Department of Defense Women's History Month STEM Role Model Award in the civilian category.

In this interview, Ries discusses her career at Norfolk State and AFIT, her contributions to physics, and her involvement in the development of STEM education. Discussing the challenges faced by women in STEM, she comments on the evolution of STEM education and women's role in the field. Reflecting on her own experiences, she provides advice for women in STEM and in demanding careers, for young girls interested in STEM, and for young people entering the workforce.

About the Interview

HEIDI RIES: An Interview Conducted by Hannah Bech, IEEE History Center, 10 March 2015.

Interview #686 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.

Copyright Statement

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Heidi Ries, an oral history conducted in 2015 by Hannah Bech, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

INTERVIEWEE: Heidi Ries
INTERVIEWER: Hannah Bech
DATE: 10 March 2015
PLACE: Phone Interview

Early Life and Education

Ms. Bech:

Dr. Ries, I’d like to welcome you to your oral history interview. We hope to learn the significant events of your life to best understand how you got to the place where you are today. If you feel uncomfortable or unable to answer a question at any time, we can move on to another question keeping in mind that you will be able to edit the transcript and add or delete anything that you would like. So, let’s begin by talking about your early life and education. Could you please state your full name and date and place of birth?

Dr. Ries:

Heidi René Mitchell Ries.

Ms. Bech:

And what was your date of birth, and where were you born?

Dr. Ries:

I was born in Marion, OH, in 1960.

Ms. Bech:

Did you grow up there?

Dr. Ries:

I grew up in two small towns that were in the same county. I started in Green Camp, OH, where I attended kindergarten. Then for first grade and through high school, I lived in Prospect, OH. Both of those towns were part of the Elgin school district, in Marion County.

Ms. Bech:

Okay, thank you. Can you tell me about your childhood? What was your schooling like in elementary and high school?

Dr. Ries:

It was a pretty typical Ohio public school. The elementary schools were within walking distance of my home. It was a rural community and about the time that I was entering kindergarten was when they started consolidating school districts in Ohio. The Elgin Local School District I was in ended up being four different communities that came together: Green Camp that I mentioned earlier, Prospect, LaRue and New Bloomington. Each of those towns had its own elementary school, and then when I was in school two of those towns, Green Camp and Prospect had a middle school in my town. All four of those towns went to a single high school that was built in a field that was centrally located between these four towns. Even by the time they put four towns together there were only about 600 students in the whole high school, which is smaller than my children’s class size.

Ms. Bech:

Wow.

Dr. Ries:

We had a band, and a football team, and basketball and track, Latin Club and Drama Club. French and Latin were the two languages taught. And of course, Future Farmers of America and Future Homemakers of America, but that was pretty much the extent of the clubs and opportunities with the school. We had one section of physics for my senior class and one section of chemistry for my junior class, so it was relatively small.

Ms. Bech:

Wow. So, were you interested in science in your youth?

Dr. Ries:

Yes, I was, actually. I guess I should mention that one of the unusual things about my high school was that in those chemistry and physics class I mentioned the girls outnumbered the boys 3 to 1. I didn’t know that was unusual until much later. I was used to the girls being interested, and it was the same way in our advanced math class. I thought that was typical...of course, now I know it wasn’t. My father was interested in science and so he was always reading science books, even though he was a high school band director. It was normal in our household to have those broader interests. I have one brother, and he was always building stuff. He’s an engineer now. There was always some kind of rocket device or modifications to a bicycle that were being done, those kinds of things. I didn’t realize I was especially interested in science but it was all around me at the time.

STEM Influences

Ms. Bech:

So, my next question was how did you become interested in science, and you mentioned a little bit about your family. Did you have any other influences?

Dr. Ries:

I had a really good middle school science teacher, Mr. Beaver, who encouraged me to do the science fairs. At that time, I was also interested in math, and had a really wonderful female math teacher in middle school, Miss Langdon, and she encouraged my interests. When I got to high school I had another really good math teacher, Mr. Thomas, who encouraged me. The biology teacher favored the boys, so I didn’t find that very interesting at the time. But, when I got into chemistry, the teacher Mr. McCreary strongly encouraged me. He thought my lab reports and things were much better than the other students’, and so he asked if he could use my materials as an example to other students of how things could be done. He really encouraged me during my junior and senior years. I think that’s when I finally decided to go the science route instead of the math route.

Ms. Bech:

So as a girl, did you feel encouraged or discouraged to pursue your scientific interests?

Dr. Ries:

I was overall encouraged, except for the one biology teacher who was obviously biased against women. He used to divide the class into girls and boys and have competitions with quiz bowl kinds of questions, and I gather historically he’d been able to ensure the boys would always win because he’d start throwing in sports questions when the boys’ team got behind. But in my class it happened that one of my friends was actually much better at answering the sports questions than the boys were. It just killed him, but the girls’ team always won.

Ms. Bech:

That’s great.

Dr. Ries:

I’ve enjoyed thinking about in retrospect over the years.

Ms. Bech:

Did you have a role model who inspired your scientific interests?

Dr. Ries:

That’s a really good question. There’re probably several. My dad’s interest in science was really important. Even though I wasn’t real close to them, I think hearing about my father’s younger cousins who were actually working on their PhDs while I was in middle school and high school was also very important. One of them was Janet (Blair) Roll who is currently on the faculty in mathematics at Ohio Northern University, and her sister Mary (Blair) Fields who actually finished her PhD when I was a junior in high school. She passed away this past year, but she had been on the biology faculty at Ursinus College. There was a fair amount of conversation when I was younger about Mary and Janet and the great things they were doing, and “Wow, look at them getting those advanced degrees!” It was quite a big deal in the area I grew up in, because very few people went to college at all. The fact that the two of my dad’s cousins got the doctorate was quite phenomenal in my family.

Ms. Bech:

So, did you know any other women who held interests in science and technology?

Dr. Ries:

Not until I got to college. I attended a regional campus of Ohio State, the regional Marion campus, and I had a female chemistry teacher there. I ended up majoring in Physics, and Prof. Gordon Aubrecht was the freshman Physics teacher there. Since it was a regional campus, there were only 9 or 10 of us in his class. So there was a lot of personal attention. Professor Albrecht ended up getting the American Physical Society Teacher of the Year award some years back. He was quite good, which I knew and benefitted from at the time, and I was glad to see him nationally recognized later.

Ms. Bech:

Great. So, in your younger life and earlier schooling years, what types of activities were you involved in that motivated your interest in STEM fields?

Dr. Ries:

I think that the science fair was certainly one. I didn’t win at the science fair but my middle school science teacher encouraged me a lot and let me know he thought my project actually had more scientific content than some of the others. My poster skills were not up to standards, but the technical content was unique. I designed my own experiments. I didn’t just produce things from science fair guides like some of the other kids were doing. One year, I did an experiment to grow different plants and water them with different temperatures of water. Another year, I designed and built a hydrometer to measure water density. Then when I was in high school, I mentioned that the school didn’t really have many activities, but my parents did take me over to the Marion regional campus of Ohio State to go to a math club for high school students. There were some math faculty members, one of whom was female, who organized the meetings to give the kids in the county more opportunities. Other than that, it was the encouragement of the teachers I had in chemistry and physics that caused me to even think about majoring in physics when I got to college.

Ms. Bech:

Great. So your family, did they encourage your scientific interests?

Dr. Ries:

Yes, I would say so. My mother raised a couple questions about why I wanted to work that hard when I was working on my physics homework late into the night, but other than that everything was encouraging.

Ms. Bech:

What were your parents’ occupations?

Dr. Ries:

Well, my father was a high school music teacher, band director, and he directed choir some too. He also was a member of a local band, The All Americans. My mother was a kindergarten teacher.

Ohio State University

Ms. Bech:

Cool! So, what led you to Ohio State University? You mentioned the regional campus, could you state that again?

Dr. Ries:

Both of my parents went to Ohio State, so that was part of my thinking from the day I started kindergarten. My dad finished his master’s degree at Ohio State at about the time I started school, and my mom resumed working on her degree at the Marion regional campus when I was in third grade. She sometimes took me to classes with her – I often tell people I attended my first college science class at the age of 9! The OSU Marion campus was very close, so I was able to go to the regional campus for a year while living at home. That was very affordable. Then I went on to the main campus in Columbus. So really my choice was about affordability and familiarity.

Ms. Bech:

So did you have any influential professors? You mentioned Professor Aubrecht.

Dr. Ries:

Yes, so I would say he was the main one initially, then there was also Prof. Robert Boyd. When I was in a modern Physics class as a junior, he also recognized that I had potential and asked me to work with him on a senior project. Dr. Boyd gave me that first exposure to research activity, and he invited me to participate in his nuclear physics experiments. That was really important. Without that, I don’t know if I would have stayed in Physics or chosen something else, but it certainly reinforced my interest.

Ms. Bech:

Absolutely. So what did you study at Ohio State?

Dr. Ries:

I went into the graduate Physics program and stayed with the Nuclear Physics emphasis I had started with Dr. Boyd, where we were building a specialized particle detector for a neutrino experiment using a Van de Graaff accelerator. Basically, there was a mining operation out west that was deep enough in the earth that there was a certain nuclear conversion you could use to look at the neutrino flux density in the ore across time. By digging up samples from far enough down in the earth, a particular isotope ratio in the molybdenum ore would be reflective of how many neutrinos had gone through there over, I can’t remember exactly, maybe 10,000 years. The problem was that some of the isotopes were very closely spaced, so new techniques were needed to separate them. It was not a trivial problem.

Ms. Bech:

What were your favorite classes during your undergrad experience?

Dr. Ries:

Probably the modern physics class that Dr. Boyd taught was my favorite. That would be because of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and getting out of the mindset of the Newtonian mechanics and realizing that there was something more, which was the most interesting part of the class. It opened my eyes to a different way of thinking about the world.

Ms. Bech:

Great. So what led you to continue your time at Ohio State for your M.S. degree?

Dr. Ries:

It was participating in the research program with Dr. Boyd. That was the main motivation.

Ms. Bech:

Could you tell me a little bit more about your M.S. degree?

Dr. Ries:

My original plan had been to finish the Doctorate at Ohio State. Completing the Masters was really just so that I would have a degree in hand when I took a break to get married. My plan had been that I was going to go back to Ohio State to finish after a year in Norfolk, VA with my husband, who was an officer in the U.S. Navy (submarine force). I wanted to make sure I had a degree in hand when I left, since the future is always uncertain.

Ms. Bech:

So did you pursue research while getting your Masters, and if so, how did you pick your research topic?

Dr. Ries:

I continued the same project I worked on as an undergraduate, development of a particle detector. There was a brief Master’s paper coming from the simulations I did related to the detector. That was something that my advisor and I decided was a good interim stopping point. I effectively earned my Masters degree two ways simultaneously, because I also took the qualifying exam for the Doctorate and passed. I also earned the degree from passing the qualifiers, but the schedule of the exams was such that to be sure that I went out with a degree on my own timeline, I also wrote the Master’s paper earlier.

Ms. Bech:

Wow.

Dr. Ries:

I actually had the highest scores of any of the American students when I took the qualifiers.

Old Dominion University

Ms. Bech:

Wow, good for you! So, what led you to Old Dominion University for your PhD?

Dr. Ries:

Well my husband was in the Navy, so it was geographically close and an opportunity for me to take some classes to stay engaged. And also, by that time I was starting to think maybe I wasn’t as interested in nuclear physics as I needed to be to pursue that wholeheartedly. Maybe I was more interested in materials science which was related to my second concentration area of study at Ohio State, solid state physics. I was starting to look at not just materials science, but something more applied, something more directly useful. Old Dominion had just started a brand new Doctoral program in Applied Physics. I had originally planned to take some classes in a program being offered at NASA Langley Research Center in Materials Science, I think by George Washington University, but they closed the program just when I was getting ready to enter it. So, the next best thing was the Applied Physics program at Old Dominion University, because they also had research programs going on at NASA Langley and they were close to Norfolk, VA where my husband was stationed. It turned out to be a good move because I basically was immediately put on a research project at NASA Langley in the Materials division, working on radiation effects in materials. NASA at that time was working on space qualifying the materials for the International Space Station design. You can see it’s been kind of a while. They were trying to understand how the materials would behave when they were exposed to space for thirty years, by simulating the environment of space. It was kind of a neat project to use my nuclear physics background from my undergraduate and Master’s work and apply it to a new area of Materials Science. This was also where I met Dr. Sheila Thibeault, a NASA researcher who was my on-site research advisor. The opportunity to work with her on such an interesting project finalized my decision to complete the Ph.D. at Old Dominion rather than returning to Ohio State.

Ms. Bech:

That’s very interesting. Could you please tell me about your dissertation?

Dr. Ries:

I had three different polymeric materials that I was looking at to compare. Kapton was the polymer of choice for NASA’s application, and still has been, and we were then comparing its behavior to Ultem which was another kind of material that hadn’t been fully characterized yet. The third material was Mylar, which is very commonly used in different aluminized or coated plastics applications in commercial use. I designed a series of experiments to explore the thermal, electrical, and mechanical properties of the materials after they were irradiated. We decided to study these properties before and after they were irradiated using electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy so that we could see if we could get information about changes in the chemical bonds from radiation of these materials. So, I designed the specimen holders for the radiation exposures, and the strategies for quickly pulling these materials from the holder. The exposures were done using a Van de Graaff accelerator for protons and a converted electron microscope for electrons. Once the radiation exposure was complete, I quickly quenched the different samples into liquid nitrogen so that the materials and the bonding would be locked into where it was at the end of the radiation exposure. We could then study the specimens at our leisure without too much degradation in between. Then we could look at what would happen over time in a controlled way. I compared the before and after data carefully, and at one point I was able to see there were some patterns connecting the EPR data and the electrical properties. My advisor decided I had done enough data collection and had something to report, and so I wrote up the dissertation.

Ms. Bech:

How did you select your topic?

Dr. Ries:

I met with several different faculty members at Old Dominion to see what projects were available at the time. I remember I also talked to someone who was doing laser spectroscopy experiments. It turned out that Dr. Wynford Harries, who was actually the most well known faculty member in the department, needed students to work on his new NASA project. Dr. Harries had joined Old Dominion from Princeton’s plasma laboratory, and was an American Physical Society Fellow. I think he was the only APS Fellow on the faculty at the time, with that level of prestige. He had a connection with NASA Langley, and he had this new research project. When I talked with him about the project and what it involved, it interested me, so I decided to go ahead and work with him. There was also the added bonus that he had money to make sure the project was going to be seen through to completion, which is important. Not all the faculty members there at the time were fully funded.

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. So, what were your favorite classes in this part of your education?

Dr. Ries:

Since I had finished the qualifiers at Ohio State, I really didn’t have many classes left to take at Old Dominion. Really the main thing I did there was independent study of Materials Science to get me caught up into this new area. I just took the qualifiers there at Old Dominion again. I really didn’t take many formal classes.

Applying to Norfolk State University

Ms. Bech:

Okay. As you were pursuing your PhD, how did you decide what you were going to do after you completed your studies?

Dr. Ries:

Well, it was more an opportunity of circumstance rather than a deliberate decision process. Since I was there at NASA Langley, I was interested in maybe working for the federal government at that time. But, as graduation neared, that was a time when NASA ended up having a hiring freeze for a couple years, so I started looking more broadly at options. I went to the American Physical Society meetings, and interviewed with a couple different folks there. I talked with the CIA, I talked with the Naval Research Lab, and both of those groups were interested in me but it would have involved moves up to the Washington, DC area. By good luck, as I was nearing completion of my research phase, there were some summer faculty from Norfolk State University assigned in the materials research division that I was in at NASA, and one of them one day happened to say, “I’ve got to leave early today because we’re starting to look through resumes for a position on campus.” So I said, “Well, would you consider me for the position?” And they said, “Sure!” So I ran home and put the finishing touches on my resume and had it back to them within an hour. They took it with them and then they invited me for an interview. And so, I went to Norfolk State even though it’s less than ideal to start a job before the dissertation is finished. But given my interest in staying in the Norfolk VA area with my husband, and given that Physics jobs at the Doctoral level are not necessarily to be found everywhere at every time, I jumped on the opportunity. Fortunately I was selected and started the next week actually. Although it was a quick decision, it was the right one for me and has led to a very rewarding career.

Early Teaching Experience

Ms. Bech:

Wow! So, before you started working at Norfolk State, did you do any teaching as a graduate student?

Dr. Ries:

No, not as a graduate student, but I did teaching and tutoring as an undergraduate.

Ms. Bech:

Oh, okay.

Dr. Ries:

During my junior year at Ohio State there was a shortage of TAs, and so they hired some of us undergraduates to teach in the laboratories. I didn’t do that my senior year because by then they had enough graduate student TAs, but I did end up assisting some of the Math faculty with a Saturday program for high school students that they had. Then I was on fellowships both at Ohio State and Old Dominion for my graduate studies, so I didn’t have any teaching duties with either of those assignments.

Ms. Bech:

Okay. Were there any teachers at the graduate level who mentored you?

Dr. Ries:

We had a senior faculty member, Prof. Leonard Jossem, who ran a TA training program at Ohio State. Later, he was also recognized for his contributions for Physics teaching. In particular, I gather that this Teaching Assistant training program was one of the first in the country when there started to be an interest in improving undergraduate physics education. They realized that the TAs were part of the key. And so the summer between when I was a senior and when I entered graduate school, I participated in the TA training program even though I didn’t actually end up being a TA later. It was really more than most TAs get I think, because we were taught about instructional strategies and design, and they videotaped us giving a lecture and we had to look at how badly we did and what errors we made, and it was pointed out what were the distracting habits that each of us had, and how to convey information more effectively.

Ms. Bech:

That sounds very helpful.

Dr. Ries:

Yes, I wouldn’t have been able to start off so well at Norfolk State without Prof. Jossem’s training program.

Career Influences

Ms. Bech:

Did you have any female mentors in your field during your education?

Dr. Ries:

I did have my advisor as an undergraduate, Bunny Clark. At that time she was not on the tenure track faculty. I don’t know if your background is Physics or something else...something else, right?

Ms. Bech:

Yes, I’m a Sociology major actually.

Dr. Ries:

Yes, so Bunny Clark is very well known in the Nuclear Physics Committee and then also did a lot of work on the Women in Physics Committees with the American Physical Society to help improve the status of women in the profession. I’ll tell you an interesting story from the student rumor mill. When I was an undergraduate student, Dr. Clark was not on a tenure track faculty position. She won an international prize in nuclear physics. As I recall the story, it was shortly after the prize was announced, that the President or Provost of the University wanted to know why it was that Dr. Clark didn’t have a tenure track appointment in the department. Next thing you know, she had a tenure track position, and the department went out of its way to hire a second woman in the department. That was just as I was leaving Ohio State.

Ms. Bech:

Wow, thank you for that story. So, what part of your education do you think was most beneficial to your career?

Dr. Ries:

I think the deliberate problem solving that you get in a Physics background has been very important, and I think I had very good teachers at Ohio State that insisted that we show all of our work. Back then, there wasn’t all this computerized grading just on the final answer, so you had to be very deliberate in presenting all the details. I think that helps people think through the problems and understand what the functions are going into it. That way if something goes wrong with the final answer, it’s a little easier to trace back and figure out how to fix it. Deliberate problem solving is, I think, the most important thing. I use that skill as an administrator every day.

Ms. Bech:

Okay. What parts of your younger life stand out as life changing or critical moments in your career?

Dr. Ries:

Well, certainly I think that moment when the Norfolk State faculty member mentioned what he was going to do that afternoon, and I was aggressive enough to ask him for a chance to have my hat thrown in the ring, was critically important. If I had not seized the opportunity right at that moment, I’m sure my career would have been very different. I don’t know if it would have been better or worse, but it would have been different.

Ms. Bech:

How would you describe the emotions surrounding that moment?

Dr. Ries:

At that moment, I don’t recall anything other than thinking, “This seems like a really great opportunity, let me do anything I can to get this resume together quickly and see what happens.” So, it was mainly the excitement of the fact that there was an opportunity where I might be able to stay in the Norfolk, VA area, and be on a University Faculty, and be able to continue working with the researchers at NASA Langley because it was only about 25 miles between these two locations.

Ms. Bech:

So do you think you realized the significance of that moment while it was occurring, or later when reflecting on previous years?

Dr. Ries:

I think it was more likely later, yes.

Ms. Bech:

Okay. And how do you think things might have been different without that moment?

Dr. Ries:

Well, there was a lot going on in Physics growth at that time, so I probably would have ended up at another University but in that same region. At that time the Department of Energy decided to build the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, VA, which was close. Most of the Physics departments in the area ended up hiring a lot of people, as well as the DOE (Department of Energy) hiring a lot of people. I think some opportunity would have emerged related to the new accelerator, so I suppose I might have gone a little more back into Nuclear Physics if I hadn’t had the job at Norfolk State.

Work at Norfolk State

Ms. Bech:

Okay. Thank you. So, now that we’ve talked about your early life, let’s move onto your career. Was your job at Norfolk State University your first job after finishing your M.S. degree?

Dr. Ries:

I guess if you don’t count the graduate fellowship at Old Dominion as being a job, then yes.

Ms. Bech:

Okay. So how long did you work at Norfolk State?

Dr. Ries:

Thirteen years.

Ms. Bech:

Wow. You were still working on your PhD when you started your work at Norfolk State. Could you tell me more about that process?

Dr. Ries:

I was hired on a one-year appointment, not a tenure track because I didn’t have the PhD. They would only give tenure track appointments if there was a PhD, but they saw the potential in me and were interested in what I brought to the table. So, basically that was a very hectic year, because I had...I think it was four different class preparations and sixteen contact hours to teach. It was a historically Black college, so not a lot of money there. I had to do all the teaching preparation, and write my dissertation at the same time. Fortunately my husband was deployed at the time, so he was at sea. I had nothing else to do anyway.

Ms. Bech:

Can you tell me about your work on assessment at Norfolk State?

Dr. Ries:

That was at the time in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when the move to having assessment programs at colleges was just starting. It was a movement across the country that colleges needed to be more accountable to the learning that students were achieving, and colleges needed to more deliberately demonstrate that student learning was occurring. The grades that students were getting in the classroom was no longer enough proof. The governor of Virginia at the time became very enthused about assessment, and decided that any campus in the state system would submit an acceptable assessment plan to the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia in some time period, or that campus would not receive any pay raises for the year. So, we were motivated to make a timely, quality plan. As we were looking through the expectations, a couple of us realized we needed a school level coordinated effort to make sure that all this got done instead of relying on the individual departments. And so, the chair of the Nursing Department, Dr. Becky Rice, and I had been talking about this, and she said “Well, let’s go talk to the Dean.” We did, and we talked with him about what we thought needed to be done next, and he agreed with us. He then decided to appoint me as Chair of the committee on behalf of the School of Health Related Professions and Natural Sciences to work on this plan. That was my first leadership role on the campus really. I coordinated the efforts of the rather more senior faculty from each of the departments to come up with individual department plans, and then integrated that into a school wide assessment plan for submission to the Vice President for Academic Affairs. And fortunately, that all worked out well, and we got our raises that year.

Ms. Bech:

Wow, congratulations.

Dr. Ries:

Thank you.

Ms. Bech:

Can you tell me about the Center that you started with some of your colleagues at Norfolk State University?

Dr. Ries:

Oh yes. One of the reasons that Norfolk State hired me was because they could see that there was some potential for us to improve the science environment on campus. At that time Norfolk State only had Undergraduate science programs, and so the thinking was that if we could build some research programs in collaboration with NASA Langley then we could provide research opportunities for our undergraduate students to participate in. I think they were interested in my background because a couple of the other faculty also had materials-related backgrounds, so they thought with several of us working together we could come up with a plan to establish a coherent materials research program at Norfolk State that NASA would fund. And so we got together and talked about each of our backgrounds and strategized about what we could do. One person would deal with nuclear magnetic resonance, I’d deal with electron paramagnetic resonance, and another person did laser spectroscopy. And so, when we discussed it, we realized that, “Hey! NASA is trying to build this new Atmospheric Sciences program that needs new laser materials, and so let’s put together a plan for developing that capability here and working with them.” We ran the idea by a couple of the people up at NASA Langley Research Center. They liked it, and they said, “This is great. Why don’t you give us a proposal by the beginning of the year?” And this was already after Thanksgiving when they said this, and so we had a pretty tight timeline, so we dropped what we were doing and spent what should have been our Christmas holiday working on this proposal so that we would have something to present to NASA at the beginning of the new year. Fortunately our efforts were well received, and we got the funding. That was the first major project, which then led to another project with the Department of Energy that was even larger. Then, finally, we got a third major project from the National Science Foundation. Between these three projects, it was probably close to a fifteen million dollar investment in the Materials program at Norfolk State. Ultimately, while I was there, we started a Masters program in Materials Science based on that work, and after I came here to AFIT, Norfolk State was ultimately able to develop a PhD program in nonlinear optical materials.

Ms. Bech:

So, what other projects did you work on at Norfolk State?

Dr. Ries:

Those were the main ones, getting the Center started, the assessment program, and getting the Graduate program started. I did some other things...I was on lots of committees, like the commencement committee and Faculty Senate. I was on search committees for a Vice President for Academic Affairs, for the Dean...smaller duration things like that. One thing that was a little different was that I developed an open house program that we would hold once a year. We hosted about 600 students a year from the Norfolk Public Schools to let them see what we were doing in the Sciences. That was very rewarding, because some years later we started getting students at the university who were telling me that their first thought of coming to college was when they came and visited those open houses.

Ms. Bech:

Wow. That sounds very rewarding, for you and for them.

Dr. Ries:

Yes. So those were the main things.

Ms. Bech:

Okay, thank you. You contributed to a significant number of publications during your time at Norfolk State. How did you balance that work with teaching and other responsibilities?

Dr. Ries:

Well, I probably did a lot of work when my husband was at sea. I think it was something that basically had to be done in the evenings and on weekends. Our teaching loads were pretty high, and I liked to have an open door policy for students. I could do that because I didn’t have children at that time. In retrospect, I probably should have shut my door a little more often and carved out more time for me to work on those publications, but I didn’t. I probably didn’t balance it too well.

Ms. Bech:

What kind of research were you working on?

Dr. Ries:

We were doing laser crystal studies at the time. I ended up hiring a crystal grower to complement our team of spectroscopists. We conducted electron spin resonance and laser spectroscopy of the crystals he grew to better understand their behavior. He would use the data as feedback then, for the next generation of crystals that he would try to grow.

Ms. Bech:

Interesting. So, Norfolk State University is a historically Black college. Their mission statement reads: “Through exemplary teaching, scholarship, and outreach, Norfolk State University transforms lives and communities by empowering individuals to maximize their potential, creating life-long learners equipped to be engaged leaders and productive global citizens.” Can you describe how your efforts there supported this mission at this college?

Dr. Ries:

Yes. One of the main reasons that we started the research program was so that our students could stop working two or three part-time jobs, and instead work at a better paid research assistantship in a laboratory. I actually had a student, one of our best Physics students, who was working three part-time jobs and taking care of an aunt who had cancer in the late stages, and still doing full time studies with an “A” average. We wanted the students to have opportunities to get out of those really low paying jobs and into something a little bit better, so that they could do work that was directly relevant to their studies, so they could improve their scientific skills instead of flipping burgers at McDonalds. That was the primary motivation for what we did in the research activity. And, of course, I was teaching on a regular basis. In addition to teaching the Physics majors, one of the things I particularly enjoyed doing was teaching the Physical Science 100 class for non-majors because a lot of the students at Norfolk State were first generation college students. They didn’t have somebody at home, like my father, who was reading science books all the time. They just didn’t have the enriched environment. Physical Science 100, for many of the students, was the first time to get a little bit of a broader view of what the world is like from a science standpoint. We had an astronomy component of that because we had a little planetarium on campus. So, I could talk about some Physics, some Earth Science, Astronomy, and it really excited some people to get that broader view. Many of them didn’t have very good science classes in the public schools at that time.

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. So, why did you choose to leave your job at Norfolk State University?

Dr. Ries:

Well, it was mainly because my husband and I learned that our second child has a visual impairment, and at the time we thought her condition might be much worse than it turned out to be. We decided that with two young children (she was about a year and a half at the time and my son was four when we decided to leave Norfolk State), it was time to come back to Ohio and be closer to family where we could get more support in case she needed it. As it turned out, I was very fortunate, because as we started to look for jobs in a certain region I was able to find a position of increased responsibility and a significant salary increase. You can’t always find that when the primary motivation is a family reason with a geographic limitation. I would have loved to stay at Norfolk State. My position there was one of great responsibility, at an institution with an inspiring mission, and I had terrific colleagues with quite a few exciting things to do. I’m glad the Norfolk State programs continued to grow after I left, and I would have been happy to have continued being part of that there. AFIT ended up being the ideal opportunity that also gave me the chance to contribute to research program growth and a unique institutional mission, but also to be a lot closer to home. Both my family and my in-laws are within a two hour drive of our house here in Dayton. That was really important to me.

AFIT

Ms. Bech:

So did you go directly to AFIT from Norfolk State?

Dr. Ries:

Yes.

Ms. Bech:

Okay. So, you’ve been very successful with establishing and managing Centers at academic institutions. What motivates this pursuit?

Dr. Ries:

I really enjoy helping other people come together and take on something bigger than what an individual faculty member can do by themselves. That’s really what we did at Norfolk State. Several of us had come together and figured out how our talents could complement each other to tackle this bigger goal of building a research program that would affect a lot of students. By the time I left Norfolk State we had thirty students on scholarship or research assistantships related to the Center. Being able to do something more significant like that is what motivates me. When I got to AFIT I could see that here we had, at that time, about a hundred faculty members, and most of them were working on individual projects. It seemed like there was an opportunity to do so much more if we could get people to think differently about their research work and think about how they could work on bigger projects as members of teams instead of on lots of teeny projects as individuals. When I came for my job interview, I talked about what it takes to establish a research Center, and that idea was apparently already on the mind of the Dean here at the time, Dr. Robert Calico. He ended up selecting me for the position. We had a strategic planning off-site for senior faculty and department heads a couple of months after I got to AFIT. We were talking about where we wanted the school to go in terms of the research reputation, and I talked to people about how the Center for Materials Research had been developed at Norfolk State and the potential I saw here at AFIT to bring together people in certain key areas to create new Centers. That off-site I think motivated several of the faculty to think about it more and so as we came back to campus we had several more meetings talking about what might be possible, where would we go to get additional support, and who should we talk to next. I guided them through those processes, and we were able to start a couple of very successful centers here.

Ms. Bech:

What did those Centers do? What were you working on through the Centers at AFIT?

Dr. Ries:

In my role here at AFIT I am the Dean for Research, so I haven’t personally worked in any of the Centers here. My role here is to facilitate the work of others. One of the first groups that assembled after I put forward the vision of how it could work was our Center of Directed Energy. They basically work on high power lasers, how the laser transmits through the atmosphere, what happens when it hits a target, how you do the optics to steer a laser beam...a variety of those related projects. That was our first center. We also have a Center for Operational Analysis that looks at different kinds of planning and does the statistical analysis or design of an experiment to support other activities. They bring a lot of different models and analysis techniques to a wide range of problems. We also have an Autonomy and Navigation Technology Center. It looks at different navigation techniques in the absence of GPS or different techniques for enhancing GPS, and how you put those on UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). We have a Center for Space Research and Assurance, a Center for Cyberspace Research, and a Center for Technical Intelligence Studies and Research. So there are quite a few different ones here at AFIT now. Like I said, my role is more to facilitate their work more than anything else, so I don’t actually do any of that work myself.

STEM Education and Career

Ms. Bech:

Okay. Well thank you, that sounds like a lot of good work being done. So, you have been very involved in creating and managing educational departments in your field. What do you think are the foundations of a good education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics?

Dr. Ries:

It definitely starts with the mathematics, especially algebra. Being able to do algebra well is something people need to be able to do to be successful, I think. From there you can study any of the different sciences, but you need to understand what is the basis of the knowledge in that particular discipline - what kind of experiments is it based on? How confident are people in the results of those experiments? How reproducible are they? That varies across the different disciplines. Even within a discipline the level of confidence in the knowledge base will vary depending on which subdiscipline you’re in. As people become more mature in their pursuit of a science career or education, then their understanding of its basis, how well we know its underlying facts, needs to become more mature. Typically I would think people should have a depth of expertise in at least one discipline or subdiscipline and then have exposure to a couple of other areas. A range of exposure helps a scientist have a broader view of what’s possible moving forward.

Ms. Bech:

Okay. Thank you. What kind of things do you find most satisfying in a job?

Dr. Ries:

I like to be able to help others be successful. I think that’s why I gravitated to the job I’m currently in.

Ms. Bech:

So what constitutes success in a job, or in your career as a whole?

Dr. Ries:

For me, being able to look back and see how I helped create positive change in the organizations I was in is success. Having made contributions that have lasting impact is important to me - that’s the main thing. Now, those contributions can be a variety of things and lead to a variety of results, and still constitute a successful career. I have made contributions in growing research Centers and a graduate materials science program. I’m sure I could have found numerous other contributions that I would have been happy to make too. I think that’s the key, making those contributions, whatever they may be, and helping others along the way. That is success to me.

Awards and Honors

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. In your career, you have received many distinguished honors and awards. For what achievement did you earn the 2013 Air Force Exemplary Civilian Service Award?

Dr. Ries:

That was because of my service as Interim Dean for the Graduate School of Engineering and Management here at AFIT between when our previous dean left and when they were able to hire a new one. During that time period...you may or may not have followed the sequestration event, and the budget woes of the Department of Defense in 2013. We had some pretty challenging times that we had to work through in terms of lots of new restrictions on travel, freezes on our funding and things like that. There were also civilian furloughs during that period. We had to figure out how to minimize the impact on AFIT’s mission, and still serve our students effectively. I don’t know if that was an achievement in the usual sense, but we got through it and survived a pretty challenging time. The Chancellor thought that was an achievement in and of itself, and nominated me for the award.

Ms. Bech:

That does sound like an achievement to me, challenging times. In 2011 you were named the Air Force winner of the Department of Defense Women’s History Month Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Role Model Award in the Civilian category. For what achievement did you earn this award?

Dr. Ries:

That was primarily for the overall growth of the research programs at AFIT. When I arrived here, the graduate school’s external sponsorship of research programs was at two and half million dollars a year, and by 2010-2011 we were pushing up to twenty million. So that was a significant amount of growth in that period of time. The growth rate was actually much faster than other universities’ growth during similar periods of time. So that was the primary achievement, although there was also recognition of my contributions to the accreditation processes and policy development here at AFIT. And of course the development of the Centers that we discussed earlier that were critical to the overall growth of the research program.

Engineering and Science Foundation

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. In your opinion, what is the most meaningful professional organization of which you are a member? Or more than one, if there are more than one?

Dr. Ries:

Since you’ve got the word meaningful in there - right now I’m an officer on the board for the Engineering and Science Foundation of Dayton. They have an endowment and a mission of investing the proceeds in ways that help with STEM education. We have had a number of projects, a couple of which I’ve been involved in steering or guiding, such as producing videos to help inspire students to study science and engineering. We supported production of a video on the civil engineering career field that highlights some of the features in the Dayton area. There was a big flood in Dayton back in 1913, so there is local interest in the flood control systems that were developed and installed here. In another example that was filmed, the Schuster Performing Arts Center in Dayton has an interesting spiral staircase that required some unique architectural design. These were the kinds of things featured in these videos to make a more meaningful, personal link, at least locally, to those particular career fields. We have been really excited to find that once the videos got out on the web, they were of interest to a much broader audience than just here in the Dayton region which was our original focus and intent. Actually the civil engineering videos have hundreds of thousands of hits and are global. Being involved in that kind of outreach to students was very rewarding.

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. Could you tell me more about what else is being done by that organization for science education?

Dr. Ries:

ESF provided some initial support for “Tech Fest” at one of the local community colleges, which is now held during National Engineers Week each year. Somewhere between one and two thousand visitors come to this event each year and all of the colleges around, including AFIT, put displays and hands on science activities there. ESF also supported the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, a science-oriented museum, to bring in traveling external exhibits and to update some of their existing permanent exhibits. There was also a project a few years back with a local arts organization called the Muse Machine. This group goes into the public schools to give artistic demonstrations to kids, and we partnered with them to develop a few demonstrations that have a more STEM flavor to them. For example, there’s a gentleman here we call the Guitar Man, who added a frequency analyzer to his equipment so that he could do demonstrations with the different strings of the guitar while talking with students about sound transmission and string vibrations in the context of an artistic performance. I wasn’t personally involved in all of these, but that gives you kind of a flavor of what the Engineering and Science Foundation does.

Ms. Bech:

Well, thank you.

Dr. Ries:

One of the most recent things is that the Engineering and Science Foundation supported the start of something called Air Camp, which is modeled after Space Camp down in Huntsville, Alabama. Of course here in Dayton the big thing is air because of the Wright Brothers history we have here, and we have a lot of aeronautical engineering type research at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. And so Air Camp leverages a lot of the stories and things that are here to have an experience for the kids that’s centered around aircraft instead of spacecraft like the Space Camp. They end up planning a special mission with the aircraft, and they get to be in a simulator, and at the end of the camp the kids get to actually go up in an airplane and take the controls for a little bit, so that’s a neat thing.

Ms. Bech:

That is cool. So what do you think that you’ve gained from being a member of this organization?

Dr. Ries:

There are people on these boards, from each of the colleges in the area and the business community and the local engineering companies, so I’ve had exposure to a broader range of people in that group. We’ve had a lot of good discussions about what we can do to impact STEM education, and how we can encourage the Science and Engineering Colleges to collaborate with the Colleges of Education to come up with broader strategies that might work. How do we get the people who are at the Boonshoft Museum working with the people at our local public television station to do something together that has a greater impact? It’s kind of aligned with my usual interests anyway, but it’s with a broader group of the community rather than just people inside a single university.

Challenges of Women in STEM

Ms. Bech:

Very interesting collaborations going on. So now that we’ve talked about your career, one of the things that we are particularly interested in for this interview is the challenges of being a woman in a STEM field? Have you ever experienced discrimination or differential treatment based on your gender in your career?

Dr. Ries:

I don’t think I could say I’ve experienced discrimination per se. The main negative incident I had was not at one of the campuses I was at, it was at a professional society meeting where there were two women, and a hundred and some men. One of the male faculty from another university whom I’d seen at previous meetings, so I knew him a little bit, chose to make rather crude comments about my appearance in front of two of my students, who of course were also male. I did not appreciate being treated unprofessionally despite my conservative attire, particularly in the presence of students. Later I learned from one of his colleagues that he was removed from his campus because of his mistreatment of female students. That didn’t surprise me and I was relieved that he was held accountable for his actions. Fortunately that was the worst experience I’ve had in that way. There was also one incident when I was a college student in a laboratory class with a substitute teacher, fortunately not with the regular teacher. I ended up working by myself while all of the guys were assigned to work in pairs. Not surprisingly, working by myself I was struggling a bit more than the people working in pairs to get everything done quickly enough. The substitute faculty member, when I asked him a question, informed me that probably I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t belong in the class anyway. Fortunately, I knew I belonged in the class because I’d been kicking the guys’ behinds in all of the work up to that point, and so it didn’t disturb me to the point of making me quit. Unfortunately it probably did make me more hesitant than I should have been to ask questions later on.

Those are the kinds of occurrences that I have learned that most women in my age group have at least some experience with. Compared to what I know some of my colleagues have experienced, including not being tenured or promoted when men with lesser credentials were moving ahead, being moved to the secretarial pool during layoffs to allow men to be retained in research positions, or being physically assaulted by a teacher, I really have had a much more supportive environment for my career overall. The social aspects off campus of being a woman in a STEM field are also important. I was blessed to have in-laws who were both chemists, so the fact I was a physicist was no big deal. It was also important that my in-laws supported my husband’s decision to become a full-time Dad. In fact, he probably experienced more discrimination than I did, since he had two commanding officers in the Navy that directly told him my career was not appropriate for an officer’s wife. At that time, the wife’s suitability or lack thereof had a potential impact on an officer’s fitness reports. Other than the two relatively minor incidences I mentioned, I didn’t have anything other than extreme support from my colleagues, fortunately.

Ms. Bech:

Great. You were the winner of the 2011 National Latina Distinguished Service Award. For what achievement did you receive this award?

Dr. Ries:

Although I am not Latina as are most award recipients, I understand that the award was for my contributions to the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE Program that we had at AFIT, Central State University, University of Dayton and Wright State University. Our LEADER Project was designed to improve the campus environments for women STEM faculty members. The review committee decided that the improvement of the campus environment and its potential to benefit future Latina faculty members was deserving of recognition for this particular program, as far as I can tell.

Ms. Bech:

Okay. So, was there any time when you doubted yourself or your work?

Dr. Ries:

Not for any lengthy period of time. I had the unusual advantage of being at the top of my class all the way through, and I think that any setbacks I had were in the context of always getting A’s so the setbacks didn’t really bother me very much. The people at Norfolk State were just great in terms of supporting my career and treating me as an equal member of the department from day one. I think that was a very favorable environment for me, and so I didn’t have as many challenges that might lead to self doubt as I know other women have had. I really have to say how unique it was when I went onto the faculty at Norfolk State, because I was the first woman tenure track faculty member in many years. They also hired a woman as the laboratory coordinator at the same time, which was very helpful to both of us. The department was very collegial; we actually all went to lunch together at 11 o’clock precisely every day. The junior faculty got mentoring at the lunch table almost daily from all of the senior faculty about what we were going to do in class work, research, and committee work. It didn’t feel like mentoring in the historical context that people think of as one-on-one, but in a group setting we could talk about whatever was going on in the classroom that day or solving different problems, what we wanted to do as a group to help move an initiative forward. There was no “one-upmanship,” just open conversation and strategizing as a team. I think that having that kind of social environment every day when I was getting started prevented me from having the doubts that I think people are more likely to have if they are working in isolation or receiving frequent negative comments.

Ms. Bech:

That’s good. Do you think gender ever did have a role in you having any kind of doubt?

Dr. Ries:

It could have. I think everybody has some doubts for some period of time, and I’ll have to rely on the social sciences, but I think across large numbers of people women tend to have doubts more often than men. I’ve heard that’s the case. I’ll rely on those other studies, but I can’t say that I personally have spent a lot of time wallowing in doubt or worrying too much. I tend to be a more forward looking person and not dwell much on the past. I can’t really say that my gender identity has been a particular challenge in that way.

Ms. Bech:

Okay, thank you.

Dr. Ries:

Again, I think I’ve also been very fortunate. I think it was unique being a woman in the department at Norfolk State that was made up of minority men, who were in the minority racially. We ended up having conversations that I don’t think I would have been able to have if I was somewhere else, because they taught me about the barriers that they had faced during segregation, and anything that I experienced was nothing compared to what these men had experienced in the South in the 1950s. That has influenced my perspective about my own gender-related challenges, I’m sure.

Personal v. Professional Life

Ms. Bech:

I’m sure it did. In regards to gender, do you feel any additional pressure to balance your professional and your personal or family life?

Dr. Ries:

I know that I have a personal interest in balancing professional and personal life. Whether it’s more pressure than anybody else feels, I don’t know. I’ve been very fortunate in that my husband after his naval career decided to be a full time dad. I have to say that with that kind of support from my husband, it has been not nearly as challenging to achieve a work life balance that I find acceptable compared to women who don’t have somebody at home to rely on to take care of the children.

Ms. Bech:

Would you have any advice for a woman in a demanding career that wishes to start or maintain a family life?

Dr. Ries:

I think that people need to really be thoughtful about what it is they want and what’s important to them personally. Then, make the best choices you can to make reasonable achievements in each of those areas. I think the main thing is to think of what it is you really want, and think about what is really feasible given current realities, and try to lay out approaches and next steps that are feasible. I think it’s not realistic to expect that you will be looked upon as the absolute most dedicated, highest achieving professional in the world, and at the same time be viewed as the most perfect nurturing, attentive, there for everything mom. I think it’s important to recognize that there aren’t enough hours in the day to do both of those things to the extreme every day. I think people have to think about that carefully and decide what’s good enough in both areas in a particular time period to move everything ahead over the long run. We had a pediatrician who gave us good advice when my son, who’s my oldest child, was a toddler. My husband and I were both there for an appointment with the baby. My son demanded a lot of attention, and we were really concerned that we weren’t doing things right, or that we weren’t somehow providing all he needed. The pediatrician said, “You’ve got to understand that toddlers will always demand more. Whatever you’re giving him is quite enough!” I think what he was trying to tell us was that we were the ones with the problem of our perception. If we expected that we could make our son so perfectly happy that he would never ask for anything else, then we were the ones that had the wrong perception. And so the key was we had to be the adults, decide when we were doing enough, draw the lines and make choices as we went along without feeling guilty about saying “no” when appropriate. I think we’ve managed to do that.

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. So, how have you seen women’s roles change over the course of your education and career in STEM?

Dr. Ries:

Can we go back to the last question? There was one other thing I wanted to mention.

Ms. Bech:

Absolutely.

Dr. Ries:

That is that I think people need to sit back and review their choices and priorities every so often because in that reflection you may find that you’ve drifted too far one way or the other and want to make a little bit of a course correction. I did some of that reflection and would think about what I want to do next year, and decide this year I wanted to take on another volunteer effort guiding my daughter’s Science Olympiad team or whatever. If I didn’t periodically think about where I really put my time over the last year or two, and where I want to put that time in the future, I would be drifting along in some direction and in ten years possibly be very dissatisfied with the work/life balance I ended up with. If you consciously think about the overall balance every year or so, not on a daily basis because day by day that balance shifts very radically, but if you think about it over the course of a year, then you can decide if you are happy with where things are or if you need to make adjustments. I think that reflection is very important for long term balance.

Ms. Bech:

Okay.

Evolution of Women's Role in STEM

Dr. Ries:

Onto the “Have I seen things change?” Boy, have I! I tell you, when I started it was not uncommon for me to be the only woman in the room. I’ve really seen this change significantly in the last three or four years. When I go to meetings, several women may be actually among the leaders there, at least a couple probably will be. It’s very likely that at least a third of the people in the room will be women. This was not the case 20 years ago at all. And now, in the Air Force, and I think this is the most amazing thing...when I came to the Air Force, they had these pictures on the wall that had the leadership chain all the way up to the President of the United States. When I first got here, the pictures were all of white men, all of them. Now, if I go out and look at the wall today, obviously at the very top is President Obama’s picture. If you come down a little, the Secretary of the Air Force is Secretary Deborah James - a woman up high at the top. We also have a female Air Force Chief Scientist right now, Dr. Mica Endsley, who is the key Air Force science advisor at the Pentagon. This was not the case some years ago. And here on this base, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, the highest ranking individual is four-star General Janet Wolfenbarger, who controls the Air Force Materiel Command and the entire investment the Air Force has in science and technology. These are incredible feats to me. These are not flukes: there are lots of other women who are coming up the ranks. I had dinner last night with a two-star general, Dr. Jocelyn Seng, the mobilization assistant to our Air University Commander and a mechanical engineer with degrees from MIT and Stanford. So, this level of female scientific leadership wasn’t the case when I first came to the Air Force in 1999. And it certainly wasn’t the case when I started my college career in 1978. So, I’m kind of excited about this new environment, and hope it means an easier path for my daughter and future generations of women scientists.

Ms. Bech:

I am too. How do you think these changes might have come about?

Dr. Ries:

Well, I think the changes I have benefited from compared to my mother’s generation started back in the 60’s and 70’s, when women recognized that they wanted to make more contributions outside of the home, and that people should be allowed to pursue whatever their interests are and to move forward. The federal government played an important role in removing some of the barriers to opportunities and promotion in the Civil Service system, for both women and minorities; and also in enforcing civil rights. There will always be some challenges everywhere but I think there’s been a lot of progress through long years of struggle toward equality for all people. The 60s and 70s is when I think some of the key changes happened in terms of opening up a lot of opportunities that many people had been prevented from pursuing. Women and minorities couldn’t get to leadership roles in the sciences if they aren’t being admitted to graduate programs or being hired in entry level positions in reasonable numbers. There’s still plenty to clean up, obviously. This week is the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Selma, walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the turning point for the Civil Rights Movement. That was 50 years ago and we’re still not where we need to be yet on voting rights and elimination of law enforcement abuses. It’s the same for women’s increasing roles in STEM. It’s not going to change overnight, because it takes a long time, but there’s progress. I think the changes really started taking place in the 60s and 70s and we’re finally starting to see some of the benefits of that now at leadership levels.

Ms. Bech:

Well, it sounds like you’ve also had a hand in this because your efforts to support the recruitment, retention, promotion and career development of other women STEM faculty are very impressive. Could you describe that work?

Dr. Ries:

The LEADER program is what I assume you’re referring to. I think the key feature there is I have very supportive leaders here at AFIT who have always supported the program’s improvement efforts. We showed them the evidence coming out of social science research that suggests that people develop unconscious biases, and there’s an opportunity to help people suppress those biases by providing awareness training to help them make more objective decisions. The deans and department heads were supportive and allowed the LEADER team to provide mandated unconscious bias training to our promotion-tenure committees and faculty recruitment committees. I think that was probably one of the key things, because then through that training we were able to open a broader dialogue among faculty about the fact that these unconscious biases exist, and about how women experience some of the male-dominated culture as less than supportive or welcoming. These kinds of open conversations made it easier for women to express their discomfort if needed, and for the men of good will to understand the role they need to play if they observe inappropriate behavior by other men. I’m a believer in building a coalition of the willing through the right conversations, and when that coalition gets big enough then you tend to shift the culture. I think that’s what people have done through LEADER and other NSF ADVANCE programs.

Ms. Bech:

How do you think women in STEM can support each other?

Dr. Ries:

I think having open conversations with each other is the key piece there. Part of what we also did with the LEADER program is to have quarterly luncheons where we would just invite the women at AFIT who have PhDs. We include civilian tenure track faculty, Post-Docs, and military faculty who have PhDs but aren’t tenure track. We add all those up and now we’re up to a dozen or so, but when we started we had only seven or eight. We’ve found it’s useful to get all these people together and talk about how things are going. We’ve been able to do it in a way that’s very positive, and fortunately people haven’t had as extreme of problems here as at some places. I think we’re able to help each other with problem solving strategies, such as knowing when you need to elevate a concern because the staff person isn’t giving your issue the right priority. We also help each other with strategies for saying to somebody, “Hey, did you realize that you just offended me?” in a way that people can take care of their own confrontations a little more effectively. We also share their successes and cheer each other on. Having other people know about your successes and help spread the good news about your accomplishments is as important as help with strategies for dealing with problems.

Science Olympiad and Destination Imagination Program

Ms. Bech:

Thank you, that’s a lot of very good advice. So, you’ve done substantial work with young people and young women who are interested in STEM, acting as a Science Olympiad Coach and team coordinator for a Destination Imagination Program. How did you become involved in those programs?

Dr. Ries:

That was one of those self-reflection moments I was telling you about. When my children were getting to be upper elementary school age, I consciously decided I wanted to make sure I did something during their school years to support their education and spend more time with them, other than just chaperoning the occasional field trip. The first opportunity that came up was when my daughter decided she was interested in Destination Imagination and they needed coaches, so my husband and I volunteered. We only did that for one year because my daughter decided she liked Science Olympiad better so we moved over to that. I was fortunate that those opportunities were there, they were both really great programs to work with kids. The schools always need volunteers for something, though, so if it hadn’t been Science Olympiad and Destination Imagination I would have found something else at the time.

Ms. Bech:

Can you describe your work with Destination Imagination?

Dr. Ries:

That program is one where they put together teams of kids of similar age and they try to mix it so it’s about half boys and half girls, as close as they can come based on the total number of volunteers. I think we had maybe four boys and two girls because that’s how it worked out. There are different topics that the kids can pick for their competition, and so the coach’s role is really just to guide the team as it makes the choice, help them make a timeline for how they’re going to prepare their project for the competition, and give them a little bit of framework but not do it for them. You need to make sure to step back and let them learn, figure out how to deal with each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and remind them what needs to be done without being too directive. It’s intended to spur their imaginations, if you will. The group I had picked a topic that was related to learning about penguins, and they ended up doing a pretty short little play. The rules required that somewhere in this activity they would demonstrate some of the different behaviors penguins have, and they needed to make costumes that were reflective of different kinds of penguins, but from there the kids were free to create whatever scenery and dialogue they wanted.

Ms. Bech:

Cool. What was your work like with the Science Olympiad?

Dr. Ries:

The first couple of years we did the Optics event, so there the kids compete in teams of two, but whoever wants to come to the practice can come. We usually had between six and ten of them. The Science Olympiad has three different kind of events. They have what they call “build” events where the students build some device to perform particular tasks, they have study events that involve test taking on particular topics, and they have combined build/study events. The Optics event is a combined event. The kids had to learn about Optics, and so with my Physics background it was pretty easy to guide them to the right materials to study to take the tests covering this topic. For the build part, there was a standard “laser shoot surface,” a box with a laser mounted in it, and the kids had to figure out how to position mirrors in the box to make the laser hit a particular spot on the box. This is very easy when the laser is on and the mirrors are uncovered so you can use them, but in competition they have to position the mirrors without the laser on and the mirrors covered. They have to see where the laser position is, where the target is, where any barriers that they have to steer the laser beam around, then use their understanding of the angles of the optics well enough to do the mirror positioning. Then, the great unveil occurs and they see whether their laser beam hit the target or not, and the team closest to the target wins.

Ms. Bech:

That sounds very dramatic!

Dr. Ries:

It gave me lots of chances to tell them stories about Air Force directed energy and airborne lasers and those kinds of things, so they thought that was really cool. My daughter was in the group and a couple of other girls as well. The overall middle school coach selected my daughter to be on the competition team for Optics too, so that was fun. Next we moved to coaching “Shock Value”, since they change events in Science Olympiad every couple years. Shock Value was again a combined build/study event to teach students about electric circuits and a variety of basic electricity facts. The competition included “stations” where kids have to follow directions to assemble some device correctly, take measurements, or predict whether or not a light bulb would turn on. They had to know how to use a multimeter to measure the resistance of a circuit, learn about Ohm’s law, and other things.

Girls' Interest in STEM

Ms. Bech:

Do you think girls are becoming more interested in STEM?

Dr. Ries:

Yes. We’ve actually been noticing that there are more girls on the Science Olympiad teams at my daughter’s level than the grades that were ahead of her. She started when she was in sixth grade. The high school level at that time did not have as many girls as her grade does, but it seems to be increasing overall from what I’ve seen.

Ms. Bech:

How do you motivate girls to pursue their interests in these fields?

Dr. Ries:

I think it is very helpful to have women involved as leaders in the program. In the Science Olympiad program at our school, Centerville Schools, there’s a good mixture of women teachers, male teachers, and both mothers and fathers coaching the different events. The team work aspects and the mix of study events that attract more of the girls with the build events that attract more of the boys, attract both groups to the team. I didn’t mention before that in Science Olympiad overall, there are twenty-some events and there’s a team of fifteen kids who have to cover all these events, and the team gets a score based on how they did on all of these things put together.

Ms. Bech:

Right, like a comprehensive score.

Dr. Ries:

Yes, like a comprehensive. I’ve watched my daughter learn to appreciate the contributions of others across these different areas. They learn that the team does better overall if you’ve got diversity because some people know how to do one thing, somebody else knows how to do something else, and when you put that all together you can be successful. If everybody had exactly the same interests or skills, they know they would fail as a team overall. When the kids learn that, then they go out and they recruit other people to join their team who have different interests. It’s not all physics-type stuff. There’s a biology component, and astronomy – different things. I think the Science Olympiad programs are great for motivating kids, and girls in particular because of the team aspect instead of it being just an individual competition piece.

Ms. Bech:

How do you think that women can take on leadership roles in STEM?

Dr. Ries:

Well, I think putting up their hands to volunteer is an important part. Of course first you must have the preparation to do it, and then when the opportunity arrives, step forward and volunteer. Do not just wait to be invited, or think you have to be the top expert in the world to take on the task. What’s key is to let other people know that you’re interested. Sometimes I think people wait to be invited, and by that time somebody else has stepped forward first. It’s important to recognize, if you’re interested, that if you volunteer or apply the worst thing that can happen is that they pick someone else. That’s not so terrible, since it’s the same result as if you don’t apply. So go ahead and volunteer!

Career Reflection and Advice for Young People

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. So, now, I’d like to ask you a few questions to reflect upon your career and give some advice before we wrap up. What was your favorite job or position that you held?

Dr. Ries:

Well, probably being center director at Norfolk State, mainly because I was more connected to both students and faculty. I like my current job very well too, but I don’t get to interact with undergraduates at all. I mainly work with the graduate school faculty. That opportunity at Norfolk State to influence the younger generation was very rewarding.

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. Have you seen any notable trends in education in general, or in STEM education?

Dr. Ries:

Well, there has certainly been a trend toward more hands-on activity and blended learning, and less of the one way lecture. I think that’s positive, and lets people explore more at their own pace. There’s also some strategies for in-class problem solving as teams, and “clickers” for immediate feedback so the teacher can adapt quickly. I think those are interesting developments. Innovative approaches can appear less cost effective at times, which makes it a challenge to implement, but things that have more of the team aspect of learning really can encourage women to participate more if done correctly.

Ms. Bech:

How could your experiences help someone just entering or contemplating entering a STEM field?

Dr. Ries:

Well, I think it lets people know that a rewarding STEM career possible even if you come from a small school background that didn’t have a lot of advanced STEM courses. You can still do something satisfying. I think one of the key lessons people might see from the pattern of my career is the importance of pursuing opportunities as they arise, whether it was jumping in to take the lead on the assessment committee or going ahead and applying for the Dean for Research job at AFIT. Just seeing that it was possible in the past may be the most important thing.

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. The next question, and I know this is kind of broad, but how do you define success in life in general?

Dr. Ries:

Well, that is kind of broad. I think it comes back to that reflection piece that I was talking about earlier. If you can look back on what you’ve done over the last several years and be generally satisfied that you did the right things, are moving ahead, and are helping other people, then I think that can be considered a success. On a daily level, I usually have things each day that I have to get done, and that’s my daily measure of success of whether I got them done or not. I think the longer term is more important. For me, it’s having treated the people around me, whether they were family or colleagues or friends, the right way, that to me is success. The fact that I have had professional success in addition to that to me is a bonus.

Ms. Bech:

Thank you. What are steps that young people can take to prepare themselves for their first jobs?

Dr. Ries:

The very basic part, I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve heard that 90% of success is showing up. I think that’s so true. Timeliness and following through on commitments is absolutely critical so that people know you are dependable. That means when you’re doing your educational pursuits you have to be thorough about it, so you’ve got the skills that are needed to be able to follow through on the commitments you make. And, of course you have to be honest in your assessment of what you can and can’t accomplish so that you can make commitments that you can meet. I think that probably covers most of it. Then of course, the usual advice of finding a mentor that you can look up to or a group of people that can provide guidance and that you can say “I wouldn’t mind in twenty years from now if I’m at the same point that person is,” both professionally and personally. I think it’s a good idea to have that sharp picture in your mind. I hadn’t thought of it until just now, but I remember that Dr. Boyd, the faculty member at Ohio State, had asked me where I want to be in five years. I think that was when I realized that I wanted to be at a smaller university such as Norfolk State or AFIT. I didn’t really think about it until he asked that question. I think asking yourself that question periodically, where do you wanted to be in five years, is a very important thing to do. If you don’t take time to think about it, you may miss the chance to look for new opportunities. Along the same lines, when I was at Norfolk State, they ended up having a motivational speaker come in and he was asking some of the same kind of questions. That was when I realized I wanted to think about coming back closer to home in Ohio. People need to do the basics of education and be dependable, and really think about where they want to be so they can really prepare themselves for good options.

Ms. Bech:

If you could go back and change one thing, what would it be?

Dr. Ries:

I really couldn’t think of anything that was in my control that I would go back and change. Anything I might change would lead to a different place, and I’m happy where I am.

Ms. Bech:

I like to hear that. Overall, what is the greatest obstacle overall that you overcame in your career or in life?

Dr. Ries:

Well, I’m actually a two time cancer survivor.

Ms. Bech:

Wow, congratulations.

Dr. Ries:

That might be it. I was in my first year of my tenure track appointment at Norfolk State when I had my first cancer experience. Getting back on track after that was a bit of a challenge. It refocused my thinking about where I wanted to go, I guess.

Ms. Bech:

I can see how that would make a big impact on your life and your career. Congratulations for persevering.

Dr. Ries:

Thank you.

Ms. Bech:

Overall, what are you most proud of in your career and in your life?

Dr. Ries:

I’m certainly very proud of the growth of the research program both at Norfolk State and here at AFIT. I’m probably more proud of the one at Norfolk State because I had a more direct role in getting that started. Here I think, at AFIT, the basic elements were there, and I provided a sort of catalyst and support along the way. At Norfolk State, there were three of us there, and our direct action of going above and beyond to spend our Christmas holidays to write a proposal was critical to our progress. I think that’s what I’m most proud of there. In my life, I’m certainly very proud of the family life my husband and I have built with our children.

Ms. Bech:

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” What are your goals that you will be pursuing in the coming years?

Dr. Ries:

At the moment, I’m interested in working on the collaboration between AFIT and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in a number of areas, particularly improved STEM education for their very large workforce using what we can offer here at AFIT. I am also interested in finding better ways to connect the AFIT research program to the evolving needs of the Air Force by leveraging our partnership with AFRL. And then, continuing my efforts in improving STEM education through the work of the Engineering and Science Foundation. Those are the main things I’m interested in doing right now. Over the coming few months I will begin thinking about my next set of goals, since my daughter will be a senior and more options will be feasible soon.

Ms. Bech:

Well, I wish you the best of luck in those endeavors. Is there anything I’ve neglected to ask you that you would like to add?

Dr. Ries:

I would just like to reiterate, I think I’ve been very fortunate along the way in having very supportive department heads and deans. I think there may be people out there in those roles, department heads and deans, who don’t realize how much that extra comment of encouragement can help, or being proactive in facilitating that work-life balance can help. Just as an example, the department head I had back at Norfolk State when my husband had been assigned to a base in Charleston, SC, instead of in Norfolk, VA; came to me and said, “You know, if you wanted to drive down to Charleston, how would you like if I just gave you Friday morning classes so you could leave by noon to get down there?” He did that proactively, without waiting for me to come and ask. I think that was incredibly important in making me feel that he really cared. If I’d asked for the schedule change he still would have done it, but like a lot of women I may have hesitated to ask. Department heads and deans really should look for opportunities to offer flexibility to their faculty so work-life balance comes more naturally. Good leaders should recognize that people may hesitate to ask for what they need so they won’t be perceived as inadequately committed to the workplace. Be proactive about providing viable options to your employees when possible. That was the main thing I wanted to add.

Ms. Bech:

Okay. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to participate in this oral history interview. It really means a lot to me and to everyone that I’m working with.

Dr. Ries:

You’re very welcome. Thank you for taking the time to allow me to tell my story.