July 25, 2021
Cammy Abernathy, UF

Photo: UF

Seeking Creativity through Diversity

Cammy Abernathy, UF

UF's engineering dean touts the advantages of a diverse student body

Amy Martinez | 10/28/2020

In the early 1980s, the engineering school at Stanford was fairly inhospitable for women, says Cammy Abernathy, who was then pursuing her engineering Ph.D. Along with a shortage of women’s bathrooms, she had to put up with calendars of nude women in some male colleagues’ offices. She recalls: “Some of us got a little tired of looking at those calendars and said, ‘Why don’t you replace them with something else,’ which didn’t make us very popular.”

She says she might have quit the program if not for an African-American engineering professor, Clayton Bates Jr., who encouraged her to stick with it. In 1985, she got her doctorate from Stanford and began working for Bell Labs in New Jersey, where she met her husband, Stephen Pearton, like her a materials scientist and engineer. In 1993, they joined the engineering faculty at the University of Florida.

Abernathy, the daughter of a single mother, grew up in Texas and New Mexico with a grandmother who impressed upon her the importance of getting a good education. “My grandmother believed that women had to stand on their own two feet and take care of themselves,” she says. When it came time for college, she applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and got accepted.

“I had pretty good grades and pretty good SAT scores. I assumed that if I applied, I’d have a pretty good chance of getting in,” she says. “I look back now and think, why on earth did I believe I would get into MIT? I guess ignorance is bliss.”

Since becoming engineering dean at UF in 2009, Abernathy has made diversity a top priority. Over the past decade, the percentage of UF engineering professors who are women has grown from less than 10% to more than 20%. Last year, the American Society for Engineering Education recognized UF for employing the most female black professors — seven — of any engineering school in the U.S.

With Abernathy as dean, UF’s engineering school also has diversified its student body. In 2017, it produced the second-most black doctoral graduates — six — and the third-most Hispanic doctorates — nine — in the U.S.

Abernathy says the school is working with Florida’s K-12 system to increase the pool of qualified female and minority undergraduate students in engineering. In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, UF’s freshman engineering class was 31% female, 20% Hispanic and 3% black. More than 60% of freshmen were white, and 10% were Asian.

“There has been study after study showing that diverse teams make more creative decisions and more creative products. I talk to industry all the time in Florida, and they learned this many years ago: They need a diverse work force because they need innovative solutions or else they go out of business. Plus, they’re creating products for a diverse marketplace. You don’t create the right products unless you have a diverse team,” she says. “As an engineering college, we realize we’re not going to be innovative if we’re not diverse.”

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