For work with women in STEM, Comita wins mentoring prize

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Liza Comita receives the 2016 postdoctoral mentoring prize from Deputy Provost Richard Bribiescas. Comita won for her dedication to mentoring women in STEM fields. Photo by Carl Kaufman.

Liza Comita, assistant professor of tropical forest management at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (F&ES), won the 2016 Postdoctoral Mentoring Prize. The prize recognizes the faculty member who is judged to have best represented the qualities of academic mentorship for their postdoctoral trainees.

Comita was awarded the prize largely for her work with Women in Science at Yale (WISAY), an organization of students and postdocs that promotes the interests of women in STEM fields and advocates for gender equality in all fields. While she has her own appointed advisees, she also donates her time to advise other postdocs through WISAY.

Comita meets once a month with a group of female postdocs over coffee to discuss not just issues of gender bias, but also how to navigate interviews, faculty applications, work-life balance, and more.

“The postdoctoral years are a crucial stage in the career trajectories of young scholars, and good mentoring can make the difference between success and failure,” wrote Provost Benjamin Polak in a letter notifying Comita of the award. “Your mentorship through Women in Science at Yale makes a tremendous contribution to the professional growth and sense of community for postdoctoral women in science.”

At a “Postluck” — a postdoc potluck — hosted by the Postdoctoral Association on Sept. 23, Deputy Provost Richard Bribiescas presented Comita with the award, emphasizing Comita’s work with WISAY.

“Today, women are still underrepresented in many STEM fields, and that is an understatement,” Bribiescas said. “And this is why people like Liza are sorely needed. Through her engagement, she has been a remarkable university citizen.”

When she received the award, Comita shifted the spotlight to WISAY and the need for support of women in STEM fields and everywhere in academia.

“For a long time I felt like if I just did my science and did it well, everything would work out,” Comita said of her own postdoctoral and faculty experiences. “But that’s just not the case. Despite the progress that’s been made, there’s still gender bias in academia.” At the end of her brief speech, she encouraged everyone to learn more about WISAY and consider joining.

At the Postluck, Director of Postdoctoral Affairs John Alvaro noted that the committee received many nominations for the prize, but that Comita stood out for her commitment to not just her own postdocs, but others as well. In fact, some of the nine female STEM postdocs who nominated Comita for the award were not her own direct advisees, but ones she met through WISAY. In the letter, they praised her dedication to supporting women in STEM.

“As our WISAY mentor, Liza has provided guidance and advice on the faculty job search and interviews, sexism in the workplace, personal conflicts with research advisors, and issues related to work-life balance,” they wrote. “These discussions provided us with an unparalleled opportunity to seek additional advice from a successful role model on campus, and many of us will continue to ask Liza for advice as we pursue careers at other institutions.”

Comita received her bachelor’s in biology and master’s in conservation biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999. She received her Ph.D. in plant biology from the University of Georgia in 2006, after which she held several postdoctoral positions and an assistant professorship before coming to Yale in 2014. Her research focuses on the ecological mechanisms driving patterns of diversity, dynamics, and species distributions in both pristine and human-altered tropical forests.

To find out more about WISAY, visit the website.

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