Ahna Skop Chosen Inaugural Recipient of ASCB Prize In Inclusivity

Ahna Skop
Ahna Skop

Ahna R. Skop, professor of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (UW-Madison), has been chosen as the inaugural recipient of the ASCB Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity. Skop will receive a cash award of $5,000 that she can use to advance inclusion activities at her institution. She will be featured in a video at the 2018 ASCB|EMBO Meeting Keynote Address. In addition, Skop will contribute an essay to the Society’s basic research journal, Molecular Biology of the Cell.

Skop was nominated by John Doebley, professor and chair of the Genetics department at UW-Madison. In his letter, Doebley wrote that, along with being recognized for her work in genetics and cell biology, “Ahna is also a highly visible advocate and role model for underrepresented students who might otherwise overlook our program in Genetics, as well as other STEM disciplines, here at UW-Madison.”

Doebley noted that Skop has been a leading figure at the national level for underrepresented STEM students, giving a keynote talk at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) annual conference and serving as a chapter advisor for both SACNAS and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society on the UW-Madison campus. She previously served on the SACNAS National Nominations Committee and is currently on the ASCB Minorities Affairs Committee. She has also been a member of the Nuclear and Cytoplasmic Structure/Function and Dynamics Study Section, a Cell Biology Integrated Review Group at the National Institutes of Health.

In these many roles, and being part Native American and also low-income, Skop understands well the challenges and difficulties facing underrepresented students and women, and she is committed to doing all she can to help students succeed. Skop is Eastern Band Cherokee, Lebanese, and Ukrainian, and her ever-growing family is a genetic melting pot of America, including Mexican, Chinese, and Haitian backgrounds. Her passion for STEM diversity is driven by her family and love of culture, food, and travel.

Award committee chair George Langford added, “Skop exemplifies the very best qualities that the ASCB Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity seeks to recognize. She is an accomplished scientist with a strong track record in research, has made a lasting impact on her institution and the broader scientific community by advocating for and creating an inclusive environment.” Langford, a long-time ASCB member and professor and dean emeritus of the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University, went on to say that Skop “cultivates inclusivity in her research laboratory, in the classroom where she practices active learning pedagogy, and throughout the UW-Madison campus. As one of her nominators stated, ‘Ahna participates in nearly every institutional minority recruiting and retention event.’ Her boundless energy, personal commitment, and advocacy for social justice made her the unanimous choice to be the inaugural recipient of the ASCB Prize.”

But what does cultivating inclusivity look like? Skop said she takes a multi-pronged approach toward achieving inclusivity with students. First, she gets to know them, lets them get to know each other, and lets them get to know her. Even though she knows this takes time away from teaching course content, she says it is critical for student engagement.

“When the students realize that we share similar passions for food, travel, Project Runway, or Anthony Bourdain, the barriers for student interaction begin to be broken, and they feel comfortable approaching me inside and outside of class. Equally, the students start to find connections between each other, and they start talking in and outside of class more freely. It becomes a space where they are welcome and respected for what they bring to the table and to science,” Skop says.

Her next tactic is something called “grading in reverse,” an evidence-based grading method whereby students begin the course possessing all possible points, or the equivalent of an A. Their goal is to maintain as many points as possible throughout the semester.

“Students are not terrified of failure because the amount of points you lose is very small for each assessment. So 20 points off of 800 total points is still an A. The students don’t give up early in the semester,” explained Skop. “They keep working to improve, and they do. Several students have come to me in private after class to say that they have never felt more confident to succeed in a class on day one. In the end, the results are pretty remarkable. Students who come in as C students, often are the best and most creative.”

Lastly, Skop is committed to bridging the gap between science and the public. As an affiliate faculty member at the University of Wisconsin’s program in Life Sciences Communication and at the UW-Madison Arts Institute, she works to train scientists to use innovative ways to engage the public with science, communication, and art. She says oral, visual, and written communication skills are a key to success in the science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) disciplines.

“I work to incorporate written, verbal, and visual ways to communicate science in giving assessments of their speaking, written, and visual communication projects,” said Skop. “Some students realize they are much better at visualizing a problem than working on it in written form. Here is where I cater to their abilities and work to improve the skills they need help with. I tell them to work on their writing but to visualize it first, then write it down after you have seen it in the slideshow, for example. The visual learners then learn to use this technique to improve their writing skills. The challenge here is that this might be the first time that they have been told to visualize a concept and communicate it to an audience.”

Skop plans to use her prize winnings to send several underrepresented undergraduate students to the annual meetings of ASCB and SACNAS, “so that they can experience how fun it is to be a scientist, to network, and to get inspired by current research.”

Creating an inclusive environment for STEAM students in school, in the workplace, or any scientific realm is something everyone can foster, Skop believes.

“As much as we are all different from each other in terms of culture, gender, upbringing, and socioeconomic status, the similarities that bind all of us can be found. Finding commonalities and highlighting the unique qualities are keys to excellent mentor–mentee and professional relationships, as well as providing platforms for innovative ideas and discoveries in science.”

This ASCB Prize for Excellence in Inclusivity is made possible through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.