UVA Wise Professor Joins National Science Foundation to Foster Undergraduate STEM Education

Josephine Rodriguez
Photo by Lorenzo Rodriguez

Nearly 400 miles away in a 19-story high rise, UVA Wise professor Josephine Rodriguez sits in an office overlooking the D.C. Capital Beltway, but that view has not changed her purpose of creating opportunities for students in undergraduate science education.

Earlier this year, Rodriguez began her work at the U. S. National Science Foundation (NSF) as a Program Director in the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE). It’s a rotating position through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) for two years.

“It’s been a privilege to be on this side of the curtain and see the process. I’ve already learned so much and been able to send out some good news to applicants. I am in a position to support change in science education nationally by supporting the principal investigators out there,” said Rodriguez, an associate professor of biology. “For UVA Wise, this is a very valuable and unique experience. The insights I will gain in research and grant development as well as grant administration and management will help the College. When I return, I will continue promoting undergraduate STEM education and pursuing federal grants.”

A first for UVA Wise in recent history, Rodriguez’s new role entails reviewing and recommending grant proposals from around the country, while Rodriguez does not “cut the check” she oversees the merit review process, and evaluates the scientific and technical merit of proposals. She organizes panels of STEM educators and professors to review the proposals and select the most outstanding applicants for further consideration.

“STEM education is the vehicle that's going to train our scientists and teachers and it’s the vehicle that's going to allow students to maximize their potential in STEM,” she said.

Rodriguez is a program officer that reviews grant submissions from four different NSF undergraduate programs: S-STEM, Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program, Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE), and Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) within the NSF Directorate for STEM Education.

“I really love the process of writing and reviewing proposals. I get to see the steps after the proposal is submitted and I can see it go from that to being accepted and awarded to the individuals in real time,” said Rodriguez. 

Rodriguez also works with the principal investigators (PIs) on the creation and submission of proposals. 

“The real innovations and changes in STEM education are going to come from one PI at a time. By supporting these PIs, and their projects, we will learn how as a community to best support our students,” she said. “The lessons learned to advance STEM education are going to come from one talented, determined and slightly overworked PI at a time.  I’m now in the position to support these PIs and support these revolutionaries in the field,” she said. 

The Climb

Josephine Rodriguez has had the passion to make extraordinary change before she became a tenured professor at UVA Wise in 2019. In 2017, Rodriguez first heard of the rotating NSF program director positions after serving as a reviewer on a panel. 

Rodriguez said, “I was sent the ad from someone I had served on a panel with encouraging me to apply, but was later told that to be competitive one should already be a tenured professor.”

On her way to tenure, Rodriguez was working on bringing in help at UVA Wise in the form of grants and scholarships.

“I really believe that grants and scholarships like these allow for really bright students to flourish and stops them from slipping through the cracks of academia,” Rodriguez said.

In 2018, the professor obtained a $650,000 in Scholarships for STEM (S-STEM) from the NSF, the largest NSF grant the College had received at the time.  Since then, UVA Wise recruited several cohorts of S-STEM Scholars. The program has a total of 26 students and 16 of them have graduated and begun STEM careers or graduate programs.

NSF S-STEM scholarship recipient Isabella Maggard said receiving this scholarship changed the trajectory of her academic career. She went onto to become an NSF REU scholar and earned the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship in 2023. Last month, Maggard was notified that she received an Honorable Mention from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

“It allowed me to gain the research experience and compete at a national level. I am now able to graduate with B.S. in environmental science debt-free and attend the University of Tennessee Knoxville to get my Ph.D. in Microbiology,” said Maggard who graduates this month.

In 2023, Rodriguez also served as the Co-PI on an additional $100,000 grant for planning the NSF Pathways to Access, Collaboration and Equity for Central Appalachian Students (PACE) project. These scholarships are for academically talented, but low-income students looking to pursue a degree in the sciences.  

Scholarships are only a fraction of her dedication; the professor also brings passion to the lecture halls. 

“She brings the same kind of energy to the classroom that a passionate coach brings to the locker room,” said S-STEM scholarship recipient and member of the UVA Wise football team Kert Gibson. “She’s always trying to get more out of us, and you can tell she really cares about each individual and our successes.”

A Scientific Summit

In 2023, Rodriguez applied to become an NSF program director and would be hired. 

“A large part in taking this position was for the future of students and their education, STEM education is the vehicle for students from underserved backgrounds to thrive and excel. It gives access and opportunity to students that otherwise wouldn’t happen,” said Rodriguez. 

Additionally, Rodriguez takes pride in Southwest Virginia and is passionate about representing the College any chance she can. “I love when we do introductions at NSF, because I get to tell everyone the institution I am from–– UVA Wise,” she said. 

Rodriguez hopes to bring back the lessons she learns at NSF to apply at UVA Wise. 

“You are privy to the kind of advances and cutting-edge research in the realm of STEM education. It offers knowledge and resources that can be brought back to UVA Wise and applied there,” she said.

She believes that this will not only be an opportunity to further her career, but as an example to inspire UVA Wise students.

“When I heard about this position, it seemed impossible. This still feels like a dream. It’s such an honor. If I can do it, my students can do it and that’s the lesson I’ve always taught,” she said. “I always tell my students to dream big things and go for it until it becomes reality.”