Going International

Going International

EVEN IN 2020, BEING A WORKING WOMAN can mean working more hours for less pay. Ashley Robinett wants to help change that. As a member of the International Women’s Forum (IWF), Robinett joins more than 7,000 women who work together to create progress and equality for all women.

A diverse community of high achievers and thinkers, the organization serves as a model for a future where leadership has no gender. At the heart of the forum are the 35 women around the world who, as part of the IWF’s Fellows Program, meet in person and virtually to set the organization’s agenda and guide it forward. Robinett never imagined she would be part of such an organization, but it has become an important tool for her personal and professional growth. “It’s really empowering,” said Robinett. “We are committed to learning from each other, to growing as a team and getting a lot of in-classroom academic guidance on how we can be the best possible leaders wherever we are and really make a difference, inside our organization, and within our communities.”

As the current vice president of public relations for Alabama Power, Robinett is a long way from the chemical engineering degree she earned at Auburn. Her internship with Southern Nuclear, a subsidiary of parent company Southern Power, helped her land her first job on the financial engineering team.

“I really have had the most amazing experience being able to learn and see and do different things across the enterprise, from more technical roles to more financial roles to environmental roles.”

Southern Company’s (parent company of Alabama Power) leadership noticed her passion for expanding her skillset and continued to challenge her with new roles. Over the years, she’s managed strategic environmental issues and served as the assistant to the executive vice president, president and chief officer.

She also worked in Southern Company’s fuel services organization managing emission allowance procurement and strategic environmental issues. In 2008, she returned to Southern Power to manage its resource planning, risk analysis and business case development functions like renewable energy.

Before becoming vice president of public relations, she served as the vice president of corporate real estate, where she oversaw the company’s land holdings in support of business objectives through land management, acquisition and sales.

“Because I was able to couple my engineering mindset with a communication skillset, I’ve been able to really fulfill a lot of my desires and passions here at Southern Company. And that’s really where I see my home. A lot of my lifelong friends who I’m able to work with are here, and also the opportunity to be challenged and to truly make a difference.”

When Southern Company nominated her for the fellowship with the IWF, she was both humbled and surprised. Having spent most of her life in Alabama, she says it was an incredible opportunity to suddenly connect with an international organization with members in 33 countries on six continents.

“Being able to learn from my mentor and have this woman to bounce things off that’s not just in the office next door or upstairs is so valuable.”

“Being able to learn from my mentor and have this woman to bounce things off that’s not just in the office next door or upstairs is so valuable. It’s nice to have someone outside of your industry, or outside of your company, to really lean on and ask some tough questions about how I grow and learn in this environment.”

The insight and experience gained through the IWF has translated into success in Robinett’s own career.

Robinett was the recipient of the 2018 Outstanding Young Auburn Engineer award from the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, as well as the 2019 Young Alumni Achievement Award, the alumni association’s top honor for young alumni.

Robinett said she feels this organization is important because it gives women a chance to grow and improve themselves.

“I think we tend to focus on making sure everyone around us is okay and we do the best we can, given our situation, but [the fellowship program] created an opportunity for me to be very intentional in growing and developing myself, while also creating a network of women that I can lean on and I have leaned on during a lot of this.”

Finding A Home

Finding A Home

For more than 25 years, diversity and inclusion programs across campus have helped underrepresented students and alumni find their place on the Plains

WHEN HAYLEIGH HALLAM WAS CONSIDERING COLLEGES in 2016, she looked at things like majors offered, social events and professors. But she also needed something else.

A first-generation college student being raised by a single mother, Hallam (center) was cautious about the transition to college. But in her senior year of high school, she attended a STEM visitation day presented by the Office of Inclusion, Equity and Diversity (OIED) in Auburn’s College of Science and Mathematics and the Engineering Academic Excellence Program in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering. There, she found what so many underrepresented students want: a home.

“The department [OIED] really highlighted all the resources that were offered, and I felt like I could be supported there,” Hallam said. “And even my mom was sold. She said she knew I would be taken care of at Auburn.”

Auburn’s Office of Inclusion and Diversity (OID) is the hub of many programs at Auburn. Its primary purpose is to accomplish the mission set forth in Auburn University’s Strategic Diversity Plan: establish diversity as a core value at Auburn University. They do this through programming like Tiger Retreat and War Eagle Scholar’s Day, which introduce high schoolers and incoming students to the multicultural aspects of Auburn’s campus, as well as through the Cross- Cultural Center for Excellence which helps ease the transition of underrepresented students to Auburn.

The College of Liberal Arts has two programs that use dialogue and performance to engage and teach. The Mosaic Theater Company is led by Tessa Carr, associate professor of theater, and was started in 2011 to find new ways to encourage dialogue about diversity on Auburn’s campus and in the community. The company performs original performances and is open to all majors.

Two years ago, Joan Harrell, diversity coordinator for the School of Communication and Journalism, and professors Nan Fairley and Julie Bennett created “Becoming the Beloved Community,” an online space for people to share their stories
and find their common humanity. The group hosts regular events, including a talk this summer featuring the mayors of Auburn and Opelika and members of the community to find solutions for racial inequality.

Engineering at Auburn offers many opportunities for underrepresented students. Since 1996, the Engineering Academic Excellence Program has provided academic resources and programs to increase the recruitment and retention of marginalized students.

The 100+ Women Strong program aims to do the same for women in engineering. Last year, the program helped increase the percentage of women engineers studying at Auburn and provided $84,000 in scholarships and awards that supported 40 students and faculty.

Diane Sherrard, program administrator for 100+ Women Strong, said this is a program she could have used while in college. “It is incredibly rewarding for me to hear stories of young women who’ve decided to stick with engineering because of encouragement they received from a mentor, or because their scholarship reminds them that someone out there believes in them.”

Now a prepharmacy major heading into her senior year, Hallam is an OIED ambassador and a living example of the benefits of Auburn’s inclusion programs, some of which date back more than 25 years. Across campus, numerous programs are fulfilling the call from President Gogue, who recently said about diversity at Auburn, “We will work together, and we must do better.

“The program changes our perspective and causes us to see the world from a different view,” says Associate Clinical Professor Valarie Thomas. “It causes us to appreciate and value what we take for granted when it comes to our health.”

Women who want to study at Auburn’s Harbert College of Business also have many great resources. The Women in Business program seeks to create a strong community of students, faculty and staff who promote leadership and professional connections. These development initiatives focus on providing members with the tools and skills needed to become successful business leaders who will influence the diversity and inclusion efforts of their future employers.

The School of Nursing uses travel to help teach cultural lessons. Collaborating with AU Outreach Global, the Harrison School of Pharmacy and the Auburn Social Work program, students conduct free clinics in Ghana, West Africa. The program began in 2017 with an idea from AU Outreach Global to offer free clinics in the Ghanian cities of Sekondi-Takoradi and Cape Coast. In 2020 it evolved into an interdisciplinary program attempting to meet the demands of the clinics and to train students to treat people from different cultures. The program has provided service to more than 3,000 residents, offering free eye exams and eyeglasses, ear exams, blood pressure and complete vital signs screenings, blood glucose screenings, urinalysis, height and weight, patient education and free medications.

“The program changes our perspective and causes us to see the world from a different view,” says Associate Clinical Professor Valarie Thomas. “It causes us to appreciate and value what we take for granted when it comes to our health.”

Helping underserved students discover how agriculture, engineering, technology and natural resources relate to the world around them is the goal of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences’ Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences Leadership Institute. The institute hopes to stimulate interest in agriculture, natural resources and related sciences at Auburn and has scholarship programs dedicated for students who study on the Plains.

The opportunities continue long after one graduates. The inclusion and diversity programming at the Auburn Alumni Association (often in collaboration with other campus programs) includes networking events, resources and training on topics like implicit bias. A new Black Alumni Council was formed this summer and will provide a voice on issues relevant to African American alumni. The council got its start from the annual Black Alumni Weekend, where hundreds of African American alumni return to campus to network and mentor current students.

“This council will play an important role in helping to advocate for the concerns of Black alumni and friends, and build connectivity between Black alumni and the university,” said Erin Hutchins, alumni programs coordinator for inclusion and diversity at the alumni association. “This council will not only serve as advocates, but will assist with the recruitment of new students, support the retention of current students and work to preserve the legacy of Black alumni, especially those who paved the way for us to attend Auburn University beginning with Dr. Harold A. Franklin in 1964.”

For Hallam, all these programs come down to one thing: providing a sense of community. “When you are going through challenging times, it’s nice to have a network and community you can lean on.

The Long Road Back

The Long Road Back

Marsha Bass Schmid ’99 was living her best life before an accident changed everything. Now, she’s using her journey to motivate others.

FOR MARSHA BASS SCHMID, a twist of fate began with a slight twist of the neck. A medical sales rep for AgaMatrix, she  specialized in diabetes testing equipment and covered a multistate territory. A former Tigerette at Auburn, she had a 4-year-old son, was physically fit and recently married.  But sciatic nerve pain in her leg had bothered her for years, and she had visited a chiropractor more than 50 times for relief. The usual method to relieve the pain and inflammation would be to adjust her neck, then her back.

On March 30, 2011, something went wrong at one of her doctor’s appointments.

“At first, I couldn’t see,” recalled Schmid. “I called my husband to say ‘I can’t drive home, something is not right.’ He came to get me and he said, ‘If something is knocked out of place, [the chiropractor] can knock it back in.’ I went back in, the adjustment was made and that sealed the deal.”

Schmid had dissected the vertebral artery connecting her heart to her brain. After her condition perplexed doctors for 12 hours, she was rushed to Piedmont Hospital. They knew right away she had suffered a brainstem stroke, one of the most dangerous a person can have.

For the next year she lived on a ventilator, unable to open her eyes, speak, swallow or move. Survivors call it “locked-in” syndrome, where you are able to hear noises around you, but are unable to respond. It was a nightmare.

That was almost a decade ago, but it may as well be another lifetime. She’s long adjusted to moving in a wheelchair, and though her speech is limited, her mind is as sharp as ever.

“It’s kind of ironic for an English major,” said Schmid from her home in Peachtree City, Ga. “When my ability to speak was affected, it was hard because that was how I made my living; all of a sudden that was taken away.”

While doing physical therapy at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, her fellow patients inspired her to keep working. One had recovered from a brainstem stroke like hers and now is an ultra-marathon runner. Another was Yvette Pegues,
Ms. Wheelchair USA 2014.

Begun more than 20 years ago by the Dane Foundation, Ms. Wheelchair USA celebrates beauty and self-confidence in women with disabilities through a variety of competitions, including interviews, on-stage presentations and more. After learning more about the organization, Schmid decided to enter.

Though it’s a competition, it’s more about recognizing women with disabilities for their community service rather than glamour, she said. Until the pandemic began, Schmid volunteered with I-58 Mission, Inc., handing out food to the needy every Thursday.

Survivors call it “locked-in” syndrome, where you are able to hear noises around you, but are unable to respond.
It was a nightmare

Schmid at the Shepherd Center

The first time she entered in 2018, she was named Ms. Wheelchair Southeastern USA. The next year, as Ms. Wheelchair Georgia, she was crowned Ms. Wheelchair USA 2019.

“[It was] overwhelming, to say the least, because these pageants don’t have an age requirement, so I was up against 20-somethings,” she said. “As a single mom, it was the greatest thing to win the title. It was overwhelming and great and such an honor.”

The irony of the COVID-19 pandemic, Schmid says, is that able-bodied people can understand what it’s like to be disabled. Everyone is shut in, it’s difficult to see doctors and cleaning products are critical. On the other hand, companies are realizing how easy it is to work from home, which is good for those with disabilities or difficult conditions.

But what the pandemic took from Schmid was the pageantry of her reign as Ms. Wheelchair USA. Parades, appearances, speaking engagements—all canceled as the nation was forced to stay home. For the immunocompromised like herself, the risk is too high. And having already handed down her crown to the 2020 winner Dani Rice, it has been a bittersweet summer. But she is no stranger to adversity.

Schmid hopes to be a motivational speaker someday, particularly for young women in similar conditions. If she can motivate someone else, despite her speech issues, perhaps they
can do the same.

With the arrival of the EAGLES program at Auburn, which provides students with developmental disabilities a chance to attend college, she sees an opportunity to be a force for good.

“When people are physically or developmentally disabled, people do judge them by their appearance,” she said. “But they want the same things you do—they want success in life, they want to be involved, they want the opportunity. I would love to help.” She hopes that working with students will spark the return to Auburn she has been craving for years. In the meantime, she continues with physical therapy at home nine hours a week and prepares her son Troy for high school in the fall. Change won’t come overnight, but she is already educating and inspiring others, no matter the circumstances.

“Nothing is forever. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, and you may not feel that way right now, but look for it, because it’s there.”

Sniffing Out A Solution

Sniffing Out A Solution

To detect modern viruses, Auburn’s Canine Performance Sciences team is using an ancient tool—a dog’s nose


LONG BEFORE COVID-19, researchers at Auburn University were building a tool to detect invisible or hidden threats at the microscopic level. This mobile detection unit can pinpoint the source of a threat in an area as vast as an airport or football stadium, and can perceive harmful chemicals faster than any current technology.

The secret? A dog’s nose. It’s the focus of research being done by Auburn’s Canine Performance Sciences (CPS) program that could become the future of detecting viruses, bombs, dangerous chemicals and more.

“We think about the dog as a mobile, hyper-sensitive, rapidly programmable chemical and biological detection platform,” said Frank Bartol, associate dean for research at the Scott-Ritchey Center, a cutting-edge research facility  within the College of Veterinary Medicine. “The canine’s nose has evolved over eons because dogs see the world through olfaction—their sense of smell.”

The CPS group already achieved international recognition for the creation of “Vapor Wake Dogs” used to monitor massive enclosed spaces like airports for threats around the country.

When the dogs sniff out threats like bombs, they’re actually detecting the unique “odor signature” of the chemicals that are used. Each chemical leaves an odor signature that can stand out like red flags for a properly trained dog. Once the dogs have detected the threat in a given area, resources can be brought in to mitigate or remove it.

In 2019, CPS began researching whether the dogs could detect certain strains of airborne viruses that are otherwise undetectable by humans. Like training the dogs to detect the chemicals in bombs, it is critical that they know which odor signatures to look for and which to ignore.

The problem, Bartol explains, is how to train dogs (and humans) around a potentially deadly substance that sometimes requires only a thimble’s worth to cause disaster. The term they use in training is “taking the ‘boom’ out of the box.” Through Polymer Odor Capture technology, a device the size of a cell phone can “capture” the unique scent of the specified chemical and isolate it in a nonlethal format. The device can then be implemented in a variety of formats—inside a closed lab or hidden inside a large space.

Now, you’ve captured it on some kind of matrix the size of a cellphone, and you can now take this out—it poses no threat to anybody—but it’s got the real smells, if you will, the real odor signature captured, and you can imprint the dog on those odor signatures,” said Bartol.

Though they are working with a type of coronavirus, Bartol emphasized that they are not using SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, because Auburn does not currently have the BioSafety Level 3 labs necessary to handle it safely. However, the dogs have already been able to accurately detect and discriminate Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus, a virus that is nonlethal to both dogs and humans, and this will lead to promising tests in the future.

“The issue is, can dogs detect biological targets? They always have. It’s built into their DNA. Now, let’s figure out which category of biological stuff they’re good at, and can we refine that and build upon that to help us detect threats and then mitigate those threats.”

First Black Auburn Student Finally Receives Degree

First Black Auburn Student Finally Receives Degree

After integrating Auburn University more than 50 years ago, Harold Franklin Sr. finally has his diploma. Franklin graduated from Alabama State College in 1962 and enrolled at Auburn University to earn a master’s degree in history. The Talladega native’s thesis—on the Civil Rights Movement— was deemed too controversial by some professors. Despite repeated adjustments, Franklin’s thesis was never approved. Auburn awarded Franklin an honorary Doctor of Arts degree in 2001, and in February 2020, Auburn invited Franklin back to school to defend his thesis, the last  roadblock to earning his master’s degree.