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  • American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program
  • Biological and Environmental Engineering
  • Computational Biology
  • Department of Global Development
  • Natural Resources and the Environment
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Plant Breeding and Genetics Section

This is the fifth in a series of stories detailing actions CALS students, faculty and staff have taken over the past several years to make our community a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place for everyone. In fall 2021, CALS announced it's first-ever faculty cohort initiative focused on hiring a group of scientists whose work explicitly addresses systemic challenges facing marginalized communities through transdisciplinary collaboration. The first search was received with great enthusiasm and 381 people applied for the six positions. 

Michael Charles ’16 didn’t intend to continue in academia. While completing his Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering at another institution, he had become increasingly frustrated with the traditional expectations and processes of academic life: the disciplinary pigeon-holing; the prioritization of academic publications over applied engagement with underserved communities; the requirement to bring grant money into universities when he wanted to base projects within those communities; and the thinning numbers of fellow indigenous scholars. 

What changed his mind was being invited to apply to a faculty cohort initiative focused on hiring a group of scientists whose work explicitly addresses systemic challenges facing marginalized communities through transdisciplinary collaboration. The cohort is the first-ever such initiative for Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS). 

“I couldn’t imagine how to carve out what I really wanted to do within academia, but when this cohort popped up, it was exactly what I wanted to do,” said Charles, who is one of six new faculty members CALS has hired as part of the cohort. “It’s focused on bridging communities of all kinds – between disciplines, between academics and communities, between people.”

Being part of a cohort of scholars who can support each other is critically important, especially when addressing such painful and difficult problems as systemic oppression while also coming from an underrepresented background yourself, said Shaila Musharoff, a member of the new CALS cohort and Cornell’s NIH FIRST cohort.

“For me, a collaboration can be very specific, like co-authoring a paper, but it can also be ideological: Some of my most important colleagues, thought-partners, are not in my field,” Musharoff said. “To have someone hold this contextualized thread and critique appropriately from another discipline gives a richness, a variety of perspectives that helps me to think about my work in a broader context.”

Leading with values

Announced in fall 2021, the cohort initiative was led by Chelsea Specht, the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Biology and CALS’ associate dean for diversity and inclusion. The search committee, composed of 10 faculty members from across CALS, spent considerable time developing a recruitment ad that would reflect the values they were seeking, “to appeal to the hearts and minds of the people we wanted to apply,” Specht said. It worked: 381 people applied for the six positions. 

Normally, departments hire individual faculty members based on a particular disciplinary research expertise. For the cohort, the search began at the college level, and focused on how applicants would prioritize community engagement and meet the college’s core values of diversity, equity and inclusion. After the committee’s review, applications were sent to departments for their discipline-specific review, allowing for departments to select candidates, or not, based on their own teaching, research and extension goals and vision.  

“Our searches tend to lead with the disciplines, but here we wanted to lead with the values,” Specht said. “We wanted people who were addressing challenges to equity and inclusion at a grand and global scale, but we also wanted people who could support our land-grant mission in New York, and of course we were seeking scholarly and academic excellence defined with a lens centered on equity and inclusion.” 

Esther Angert, CALS senior associate dean and professor of microbiology, is part of a team that oversees the college’s efforts around faculty hiring and retention. “At times, some of us were overwhelmed by trying to integrate such a different hiring model within the existing constraints of the university and departments, Angert said, but ultimately, the cohort model has been a stunning success. 

“In my professional career, the times when I’ve seen massive growth are when I’m really jumping off a cliff and doing something untried. This was the right thing to do, and it paid off in bringing some amazing scholars to CALS,” Angert said. “I can’t think of a more tangible expression of CALS’ commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion than hiring faculty and investing in faculty whose work specifically addresses these challenges, and making sure they can reach their full potential and contribute to the Cornell community.” 

The new faculty cohort

Meet our new faculty cohort

Natalie Cápiro ’00

(she/her)

Cápiro will join the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering as an assistant professor in summer 2023. Her work seeks to understand how biological processes can transform or detoxify environmental contaminants for improved water quality to protect human health and the environment. Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately impacted by such contaminants. Cápiro’s interests include applied environmental microbiology, development and testing of innovative remediation techniques, fate and transport of organic groundwater contaminants, and nanotechnology-biological interactions in the environment.  

Meet our new faculty cohort

Michael Charles ’16

(he/him)

A Diné / Navajo scientist, Charles’ research centers on computational sustainable design and community engagement as it relates to climate change, rural electrification and wastewater treatment, including on the Navajo Reservation where only approximately 65% of people have electricity. A graduate of Cornell’s Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and now a Provost’s New Faculty Fellow, in fall 2023 Charles will join the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering with an affiliation with the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. 

Meet our new faculty cohort

Steven Mana'oakamai Johnson

(he/him)

Johnson is a Provost’s New Faculty Fellow this academic year and will join the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment as an assistant professor in fall 2023. A Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) scientist, Johnson studies the impacts of climate change on coastal communities, primarily in the Pacific Islands, using social, environmental and climate data to develop equitable and cooperative solutions. 

Meet our new faculty cohort

Chuan Liao

(he/him)

Liao, M.S. ’12, Ph.D. ’15, began this fall as an assistant professor in the Department of Global Development. An interdisciplinary sustainability and environmental social scientist, Chuan’s research interest lies at the intersection of environment, development and justice. He has worked on topics that include land tenure and land use change, food security, pastoralist mobility and livelihoods, community-based natural resources management, dryland sustainability, and sustainable energy transition. 

Meet our new faculty cohort

Shaila Musharoff

(they/them)

Also a member of the NIH FIRST cohort, Musharoff will join the Department of Computational Biology as an Assistant Professor in January 2023. Musharoff’s research focuses on the use of race and ancestry in statistical genetic research, especially in diverse populations. Their primary goal is to reduce health disparities by better understanding population-specific genetic and environmental factors that contribute to traits and disease. 

Meet our new faculty cohort

Hale Ann Tufan

(she/her)

Tufan was appointed this summer as an associate professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science, Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, and as an adjunct professor in the Department of Global Development. Tufan studies how agricultural research can positively contribute to gender equality and social inclusion. In her research on food security, crop improvement, seed systems and gender relations, she develops methods and approaches to improve gender equality in agricultural innovation.

Natalie Cápiro
Michael Charles
Steven Mana‘oakamai Johnson
Headshot of Chuan Liao
Shaila Musharoff
Hale Ann Tufan headshot

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A student working in the lab holding a petri dish