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  • Images of Dr. Melissa Nolan and Dr. Sanaz Sadati separated by a diagonal garnet bar with the USC tree logo throughout

Women researchers at USC embody goals of Title IX in their educational journeys and research careers

Sanaz Sadati grew up in a small city in Iran where kids had limited access to educational opportunities.

In her city, many girls had to quit school after middle school because there was no public transportation to the nearest high school, which was 30 minutes away, and some parents weren’t comfortable sending their daughters there. Higher degree education, however, was highly valued and encouraged in Sadati's family, especially by her father.

Although she excelled in her classes, especially her favorites, math, physics and chemistry, she had to jump through numerous hoops throughout her educational journey. After completing her first year of high school, she chose to major in math and physics. Unfortunately, the curricula of the nearest school only covered natural sciences, social sciences and humanities, so she had to move to a different school about an hour away from where she lived.

Her older sister, however, reached out to her neighbor, the principal of a school in Tehran, the capital of Iran, and petitioned her to accept Sadati, despite her not being in the school district. Because of Sadati’s high GPA and academic success, the principal admitted her to the high school, and she moved to the capital to live with her sister and her sister’s family while she finished her high school education in math and physics.

Melissa Nolan grew up in a very rural, poor part of north Georgia, where she didn’t know anyone who had gone to college.

Despite attending a high school with a high dropout rate, her parents, neither of whom graduated from college, fostered an environment where “it was never a question of if [she and her brother] would go to college, just where.” Her father would read her that day’s news as a bedtime story at night, cultivating an environment of learning and educational encouragement for Nolan and her brother.

Tales like these of hurdles women must face to pursue education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), especially in academia and research, aren’t new. But, thanks to the enactment of Title IX in 1972, U.S. educational establishments have spent the past 50 years encouraging and advocating for women to go into STEM fields.

Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools or any other educational program or establishment that receives funding from the federal government. It is perhaps best known for its instrumental role in supporting women in sports. Educational establishments are gradually updating their policies to meet the requirements demanded by Title IX.

A 2022 report by the National Coalition of Women and Girls in Education found that gender bias can prevent women and girls from pursuing an education in STEM and that attrition remains high for women in STEM at the postsecondary level. The U.S. Census Bureau demonstrates this, showing that in 2019, 47 years after Title IX was enacted, women made up 27 percent of STEM workers in America. This is up 19 percent from the 8 percent women made up in 1970, leaving significant space for further growth. Fortunately, Title IX has several measures in place to actively combat gender bias and stereotypes to help promote and keep women in STEM.

One of these measures requires institutions to periodically examine their financial assistance data to make sure STEM scholarships are not being awarded disproportionately to men. If an institution finds that a disproportionate number of students in a major are men, it must review its guidelines and make sure this is not due to bias from academic advisors. These procedures, among several other requirements, help ensure that Title IX continues to work as intended for women in STEM, even 50 years later.

Women in Research at UofSC

Sadati and Nolan are prime examples of women who have successfully overcome the challenges many of their peers may face entering these careers, with and without Title IX.

Sadati, assistant professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering and Computing, explains that there were many obstacles along her educational journey where she grew up that “you [could never] imagine here” in the United States. She describes applying for positions back in Europe where there were no women, and leaders and professors were all men. “There was no one to target as a role model,” she recalls. “But I have been lucky and fortunate. I have been respected, I have been encouraged, I have been supported in any aspect. I am still taking those people as role models.”

But aren’t I smart too?

— Melissa Nolan

On the other hand, Nolan, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the Arnold School of Public Health, recounts hearing, “Wow, you’re so pretty!” from her interviewers for a position at an Ivy League school. “But aren’t I smart too?” Nolan asks now. Instead of focusing on her intelligence, competence, and accomplishments, the interviewers chose to comment on her appearance. “As a woman, you have to learn to have this toughness to you,” she adds, “you’re just not inviting of comments like that typically.”

Sadati adds to this narrative of ethically questionable encounters women can face during the hiring process, admitting that she has heard of women being evaluated or treated differently during the hiring process because they were pregnant.

Luckily for the two USC research stars, both have supportive families and mentors who guided them on their path through education, filling in where institutional support was lacking. Sadati recounts how helpful her father, mother and older sister have been from the time she began her education to the present day.

“My mom and my sister were my role models. My sister was always very enthusiastic about education,” Sadati reveals. She talks about how her sister was the top of her class and inspired her educational journey, explaining “she went to university and studied nursing, then got married and had a kid. Then she got her master’s. She has two sons and, three months ago, she got her Ph.D.”

When Sadati’s Ph.D. advisor, a prominent researcher in the theory of non-equilibrium materials, offered her a position to get her Ph.D., some of her friends implied that she wouldn’t be able to manage it or finish the program because the advisor was “way above [her] capabilities.”

Her advisor, however, served as a role model for her. She remembers her thesis defense on the day of graduation from her program, he came out of the deliberation room, shook her hand, and said “Congratulations, my best-ever Ph.D. student.”

Now, she is on the other side of the equation, serving as a mentor and role model for the next generation of scientists. “When you show some signs of success, people come to you to ask for guidance,” she explains. She notes that she is happy to share what she knows, especially with other women, because others did the same for her along the way.

Nolan also learned from a variety of mentors and inspirations that led her through her studies to a place at USC. “Infectious diseases, in particular, is interesting,” Nolan begins. “There’s about an even split gender-wise when you’re starting out, but then if you look at leadership, it’s 75 percent men, so all of my major mentors and advisors were men,” she reveals.

While she acknowledges that at a previous institution, some women didn’t finish their program because of negative experiences and treatment, on her dissertation committee panel at the Baylor College of Medicine, she had one woman, Kristy Murray, an Associate Professor and Associate Vice-Chair for Research, who was an incredible role model for her. “Having [a] woman that I could look up to and model how to navigate these waters was very helpful,” she adds, continuing to say that these great mentors were the “secret to [her] success.”

While it may seem as though progress and change since the enactment of Title IX have been slow, USC is adapting and changing with the times, creating opportunities and resources to combat gender-based discrimination in education.

The new Title IX department at Carolina has been influential in creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all, including students, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders involved with the university. Under the Assistant Vice President for Civil Rights and Title IX at South Carolina, USC alumna Molly Peirano, the new office will serve as a “centralized report and response office to coordinate the university’s response to issues of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation related to students, faculty and staff.”

The University of South Carolina [has been] so nice and supportive.

— Sanaz Sadati

In addition to offering resources through the new Title IX office, both Sadati and Nolan acknowledge all that USC has done to make them feel supported and welcome. “The University of South Carolina [has been] so nice and supportive,” Sadati declares. She says that at the time of her hiring at USC, the university offered a position for her husband that helped keep her family together, which has allowed her to remain productive.

Nolan shares similar thoughts, musing that if she had stayed at a very male-dominated institution, she probably would have felt like people there treated her differently from her male colleagues. “One of the main reasons I came to [USC] is because I did not feel that way. I felt so supported. I still feel supported, it’s amazing,” she explains. “I have other faculty colleagues who have modeled for me how to have a family and work because it’s not easy to be a mom in this field,” she adds.

“That’s a unique aspect of USC,” Nolan continues. “Our [work with] Title IX has done a great job of creating that warm nurturing environment. We have a lot of women in executive leadership positions, which is not common at other universities.” USC’s commitment to ending gender-based discrimination and fostering a safer and more supportive environment for success is evident in Nolan’s enthusiasm for the university.

Paying it forward

Several female students in Nolan’s lab have gotten firsthand experience working with a female mentor at USC and experiencing the type of role model that both Nolan and Sadati recommend.

Kyndall Braumuller, a graduate student working in Nolan’s lab, reveals that Nolan is collaborative and uplifting in her mentorship style. “She sees individual people’s values. She really pays attention to what people like and what they’re good at, and she helps us grow that,” she says. “It makes the environment in the lab a good place to be,” she concludes.

“She sees me as a researcher, as a student, as a parent, and part of a family,” says Emily Owens-Pickle, a graduate student with two kids who defines herself as a non-traditional student. “We can’t really compartmentalize those things, nor does she want us to. She’s an example of what an ideal leader should be,” Emily says, adding that Nolan “has really high expectations for you and your work but gives you all the support you need to get there.”

It’s refreshing to see I don’t have to choose between a family and a career.

— Lauren Turner, student researcher in Melissa Nolan’s lab
Student researcher Lauren Turner looks into a microscope in Melissa Nolan's lab.

Lauren Turner, an accomplished undergraduate working alongside Nolan, adds that while she assumed public health would be a male-dominated field, her mentor and coworkers are women, and they are all working hard and getting multiple degrees. “Melissa’s now married; she has a child. Emily is married with two kids. It’s refreshing to see I don’t have to choose between a family and a career. Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you have to choose one or the other,” Lauren explains.

Kyndall describes how, at a different institution, she started off studying entomology, a highly male-dominated field. “I have been told some things that maybe are not the best and I don’t think a male would’ve been told in terms of my potential, or the path that I should follow: I shouldn’t get married right now, I should pursue this other degree, or I should do these things women typically do,” she recalls.

Coming into public health at South Carolina, however, Kyndall says she doesn’t feel that way and doesn’t feel like it’s a male-dominated field. Again, Carolina sets the example of what an inclusive and uplifting environment should look like for all students, regardless of gender.

These three women on Nolan’s lab team serve as excellent examples of how having more women involved enhances research by bringing in new perspectives, talent, and thinking to that field. “[Women] bring a different light to it,” Nolan explains. The goal is not to push men out, but it’s about “supporting and nurturing talent, and just being more thoughtful in the ways in which we could encourage women that have historically been underrepresented in certain disciplines, thinking strategically why that happened, creating the opportunity for them if they want [it].”

Despite obstacles, Sadati and Nolan have become successful professors, researchers, parents, and more. Now established in rewarding research careers, they will both serve as mentors for the next generations of women who want to enter a career in STEM, research, or academia for many years to come. Although unintentional, Sadati and Nolan run labs primarily comprised of women, paying forward the support they received in their education journeys and helping fulfill the vision of Title IX here at USC.

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