Melissa Moss provides opportunities and inspiration to female students in the CEC
By Abe Danaher | June 3, 2019
Since Melissa Moss was young, she had a fascination with science and math. While other kids in the city of Parkersburg, West Virginia, played baseball in the backyard or went to dance recitals, she had fun working on math problems with her dad. Her parents always supported her aspirations: encouraging her when she first said in high school that she wanted to go into engineering and supporting her all the way through her completion of her chemical engineering doctorate from the University of Kentucky.
Moss’ path was anything but usual. In a field that has always been predominantly male, she had to overcome barriers put in front of her because of her gender. She learned to deal with all obstacles in a professional and subtle way, breaking gender expectations as she became one of the first 10 women to graduate from her doctoral program and one of two current female department chairs/program directors in UofSC’s College of Engineering and Computing.
Now that she has reached this precipice of success and is in a position of influence, Moss feels a responsibility to help young girls who, like her, realize they have a passion for math and science.
“As a female in a male dominated field, I have a responsibility to be a positive role model and positive influence on young women that are choosing to study in this area,” she says. And through her leadership of the biomedical engineering program and her extensive mentoring of students, Moss has begun preparing the next generation of female leaders in the engineering field.
In the 13 years since the inception of the biomedical engineering program at the University of South Carolina, Moss has seen a transformation in its student body. In 2011, the program’s second graduating class consisted of only 20 students – 14 males and six females. In 2014, when she became the program director, the graduating class had 26 men and only 17 women. Just five years later, in 2018, the program had 27 male and 24 female graduates, and this year, Moss says that the program has reached a near 50-50 split in its gender composition.
But numbers don’t do justice to the enormous effect Moss has had on the program and the students within it, because for her, the commitment to her students is much more personal than her position as director would imply. She hasn’t just altered the trajectory of the biomedical program by making it inclusive for all students, but she has changed the lives of numerous undergraduate students within it.
Gerry Koons is one such student. She came to South Carolina in 2010 as a McNair Scholar, and as part of the program, she was assigned Moss as her faculty scholar mentor. This mentoring relationship started over coffee every two weeks, during which Koons says Moss was highly engaged while she described her professional goals and interests. In one of these early conversations, Koons told Moss she wanted to become a pediatric craniofacial surgeon.
From there, Moss guided her to obtain a research position in Michael Yost’s craniofacial skeletal muscle tissue engineering lab, inspired her to apply for the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship, advised her on her winning application for the scholarship, encouraged her to apply to M.D./Ph.D. programs, and wrote a letter of recommendation for Baylor College of Medicine and Rice University's M.D./Ph.D. program that she was accepted into in 2014. “She’s a person who will be present in my life forever because she has changed my life forever,” Koons says.
Lauren Phillips, a spring 2019 graduate of the biomed department, echoed similar sentiments on the impact Moss has on her students. Phillips worked in Moss’ lab, had her as a professor and senior design faculty advisor, and also had her write her letter of recommendation for medical school. She says, “When I was asking for a letter of recommendation, I was almost nervous. It’s like, I have worked for you on so many things. But this letter, I don’t know, it just meant a lot to me because her opinion is the gold standard in my opinion. I just really admire her.”
Through the biomedical program that she leads and the opportunities she offers her students, Moss has created a launchpad for young women interested in engineering. Now, her hope is that these students become leaders for the next generation of women, not just in academia, but also in the private engineering sphere.
“I would definitely like to see more women in leadership positions, and not just faculty positions or department chairs, but leadership positions in industries or even starting their own companies,” she says. “I would like to see women leading the way, because I think that those are the people that the younger generation primarily looks to.”
She is already seeing her efforts leading the biomed program paying off. “I see companies come back and say, ‘Hey we want to hire another one of your students,’ or I see multiple students going to the same graduate school,” she says. “Clearly, they like the products they are getting.”
With each call from a company and each student accepted into graduate school, Moss is filled with pride and a feeling of accomplishment. She continues to see more students enter the workforce – destined for leadership and success – and hears stories of past students, like Koons, now mentoring students just as she once mentored them.
Finally, Moss sees a responsibility that once felt so unfortunately unique becoming less and less so. Now, her hope is that one day, it’s not unique at all.