Lora Billings, Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at Montclair State University, was invited to Brazil as a visiting scientist in the highly respected U.S. Speaker and Specialist Program. Representing U.S. women scientists, she was part of a 10-day program in the cities of Rio de Janeiro, São Paolo and Recife.
While there, Billings and fellow visiting scientist Shweta Bansal from Georgetown University gave presentations; spoke with female high school and college students about the opportunities and challenges of STEM careers; and explored possibilities for establishing collaborative institutional partnerships.
“In our fast-paced tour of eight institutions and research facilities, Brazil showed the U.S. group that it has much to offer,” says Billings. “The Brazilian institutions were open and innovative about ways to partner with Montclair State University. I’m looking forward to developing these relationships.”
One focus of the program was on Brazil’s young, diverse generation of future scientists who need role models and mentors. “I feel strongly about promoting diversity in STEM fields coming from a discipline – mathematics – that typically reports it is less than 25 percent female,” says Billings. “I do think support groups, mentoring networks and strong role models make a difference and should be encouraged. We must continuously support all of our talented students throughout their educations and create a professional ecosystem that accepts diversity, values hard work and promotes respect.”
Billings also delivered presentations detailing her work in using stochastic models in epidemiology to audiences of scientists, researchers, professors and students in each city, as part of the program’s focus on scientific collaborations that address public health issues related to recent disease outbreaks, such as dengue, chikungunya and Zika. “The interdisciplinary nature of this problem spans several colleges and schools at Montclair State and reaches our newest research areas, such as sustainability and data science,” she explains.
In São Paolo, Billings and Bansal met with physics professors and PhD students to explore possible opportunities for cooperation between Brazil’s Institute of Theoretical Physics (IFT), Montclair State and Georgetown. “I am open to developing exchange programs in any field that would result in new faculty research projects and experiential learning opportunities for students,” she says. They also met with epidemiologists from the University of São Paulo Medical School who are interested in organizing interdisciplinary workshops to train future doctors to use mathematical modeling in their work.
The U.S. Speaker and Specialist Program, which is sponsored by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, engages and connects American experts with Brazilian audiences, scholars and institutions through a series of lectures, workshops and seminars. Billings’ participation in the program stemmed from her participation in the international conference, 1st Fluminense (from the state of Rio de Janeiro) Meeting of Women in Biomathematics.