Professor receives national award for diversity

Emily Williams

Viola Acoff, head of the department of metallurgical and materials engineering, was recently awarded for her dedication to increasing diversity in the field of engineering. Acoff was named a recipient of the Ellen Swallow Richards Diversity Award from The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society.

The national award recognizes an individual for “helping others to overcome personal, professional, educational, cultural or institutional adversity to pursue a career in minerals, metals and/or materials.” Acoff was the first black professor in the College of Engineering.

“When I was informed that I was selected as the inaugural recipient, I was speechless,” she said. “I was honored just to be nominated for this award and all that it represents.”

Since 1996, Acoff has served as the director of the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program at The University of Alabama. Through this program, she has worked to increase the number of science and engineering degrees awarded to students from underrepresented minority groups.

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Acoff has been awarded more than $7 million in research grants, including a National Science Foundation CAREER Award. She has published more than 75 peer-reviewed papers, co-authored three books and co-edited three books.

A native of Bessemer, Ala., Acoff attended The University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she received a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in materials engineering. She recently spoke to the Society of Women Engineers about her experience as one of the only women of color in the engineering field.

“Although women make up half the potential pool of professionals, women are still a distinct minority in the field of engineering,” she said. “Similarly, people of color currently account for most of the population growth in our country but are also at a distinct minority in the field of engineering.”

Acoff said one of the biggest challenges she faced as a woman was a sense of alienation working in a male-dominated field.

“There is the perception that women have to be twice as good as their male counterparts just to be evaluated equally,” she said. “The current environment is better than it was 20 years ago. However, there is still much room for improvement in the culture.”

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Jeannie Marshall, president-elect of the Society of Women Engineers, said women are overwhelmingly outnumbered by men in her engineering classes. Marshall is a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering, which she says is the engineering discipline with the most female students.

“Being a woman in the industry, there’s always that concept that we’re fragile and they don’t want to hurt us or say something wrong that we might take offensively, which makes people speak differently to women than they do to men,” Marshall said.

Despite the low number of female students, Marshall said her experience in the engineering program has been very positive. She said professors and other students are very open to increasing diversity in the field.

“People come from different places and people have a different perspective on things because of where they came from,” Marshall said. “Having all those different people brings in different perspectives, different ideas, different ways to solve a problem.”

Acoff will be formally presented with the Ellen Swallow Richards Diversity Award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., in July.

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