A Utah State University faculty member is among more than 300 recipients of the highest honor awarded by the U.S. government to scientists and engineers.
Nominated by the National Science Foundation, USU Assistant Professor Idalis Villanueva became the first faculty member from USU to receive the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. She was also the only 2019 recipient from the state of Utah.
“I’m deeply honored to have been selected for this and to represent my institution as well as Utah on the award,” Villanueva said.
Established in 1996, the PECASE award honors outstanding scientists and engineers at the outset of their career who show exceptional leadership potential and lead innovative research.
The award also recognizes the contributions made in the advancement of science, technology, education and mathematics education by scientists and engineers.
Villanueva, a first-generation student from Puerto Rico, joined the USU department of engineering education in August 2013 and has shown her passion and determination in the field.
“She’s intelligent, highly efficient and highly productive,” Department Head Ning Fang said. “I am very impressed with her achievement in research.”
Villanueva said her parents inspired her to seek out careers that could help solve problems.
“I didn’t really have a clear understanding of engineering at the time but I always saw my dad and my mom growing up sort of be the handyman and handywoman figuring out solutions to problems, even though they didn’t pursue a college degree,” Villanueva said.
Some of the things that help Villanueva stand out, according to Fang, are her teaching techniques and her dedication to mentoring students.
“I’m impressed in her efforts in teaching,” Fang said. “She mentored wonderful graduate students.”
USU graduate Marialuisa Di Stefano said having Villanueva as a mentor and working with her was a life-changing experience.
“She was really so good at encouraging me to do more and to believe in myself,” Di Stefano said. “I never thought I could do STEM because I grew up thinking STEM is too important, like, too difficult. It’s not for me. It’s not for girls.”
Di Stefano, a faculty member at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said Villanueva helped her through her postdoctoral program and helped her start her career in academia.
Villanueva said she hopes that her research will help people, especially the underrepresented students and faculty that pursue STEM careers.
“For me it’s always been about helping people,” Villanueva said. “If my research can somehow help increase the number of underrepresented students and faculty that pursue engineering, then I have done my job and that’s what continues to motivate me to this day.”
Throughout her career, Villanueva has authored multiple research manuscripts and book chapters. She's also presented research at conferences.
Although Villanueva oversees six multi-institutional studies, she is known for her work with researching hidden curriculum — hidden messages individuals learn about a learning or work environment regarding how they fit in that field.
“It’s these nonverbal queues and messages that tend to deter a lot of underrepresented groups from continuing in the field,” Villanueva said. “There’s been quite a bit of work done on getting them into STEM fields, but once we get them we can’t retain them.”
Villanueva said she hopes her research can help develop strategies to recruit and retain underrepresented groups into STEM careers.
“I do hope that this inspires other Latinx women and other intersectional individuals to see engineering as a pathway for them and as a way to inspire future generations as well,” Villanueva said.
Villanueva will receive the award at a ceremony on July 25 in Washington D.C.