As a leader in her field, professor Kirsten Sadler Edepli was drawn to NYU Abu Dhabi by the opportunities for women — in science, academic leadership, and in society. She’s become a champion of diversity and inclusion on campus.
"We cannot be excellent if we are not diverse and inclusive," declares Professor of Biology Kirsten Sadler Edepli. Since September 2018, she has also been Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity at NYU Abu Dhabi, a role she is relishing along side running a thriving research group and raising three children.
"To be able to help build things in a way that fits with what an educational institution should look like now, in the 21st century — to make a place that’s diverse, with a global perspective, that’s completely inclusive — that, to me, is thrilling and inspiring."
Sadler Edepli was first drawn to the entrepreneurial culture of NYU Abu Dhabi and the resources available for her research. "If I’d stayed where I was, I would have been much more conservative in my approach to science," she explains.
Since joining NYU Abu Dhabi, she has expanded her research into new areas using state-of-the-art resources and has expanded her career into a leadership position serving the growing NYU Abu Dhabi faculty. Her career started at Mount Holyoke College, followed by a masters and doctoral degree from Harvard University and then a postdoctoral fellowship in the cancer center at MIT with the woman who started the gender equity movement in science, Nancy Hopkins. "Moving is a positive thing in general. It’s a way to see things in a new light, to meet new people and to start talking about work in a new way," she continues. "But there’s something about the culture here that’s very entrepreneurial and engaged. People aren’t interested in taking the conventional approach. Many places strive to be innovative — NYU Abu Dhabi has truly achieved this. To be surrounded by that inspiration and risk taking is great for science and for teaching."
Over the last twenty years, her research has focused on the liver, and in particular working in a zebrafish model on fatty liver disease and cancer. "I’d been working on alcohol-related liver disease for awhile and I started to appreciate that, as in many diseases, even if you have a genetic predisposition or risk factor for that disease, it’s not guaranteed you’ll get it."
Due to the funding structure at the University — she’s been able to expand her research into new areas.
"We’ve now expanded our work on liver cancer and liver regeneration," she explains. "I’ve also been able to shift the focus of my research to look at environmental toxins which influence disease susceptibility and we’ve focused on arsenic. Two hundred million people in the world are exposed to unsafe levels of arsenic and that’s just what we know about. To understand how this and other exposures are changing the landscape of disease — that is exciting and important. To have the money we need as scientists to push into new fields has been game-changing."
It’s a freedom she wants to share, and when the opportunity came to work on the University’s diversity and inclusion mission, she was keen to take it on. "I’ve been a longstanding advocate for women in science — inspired by Hopkins, my postdoctoral mentor who took on the gender inequity at MIT and then, in the academy as a whole," she says. "This role is much broader than that, and I realized it was important to think much more strategically about the value of not only our diversity but the inclusive practices at the institution, and why it’s critical to excellence in teaching, research, and innovation. My goal is to promote an inclusive environment where all faculty feel like they’re valued, can contribute, and can thrive as educators, scholars, and community members."
Since taking on the role last year she’s initiated an institution-wide mentorship program called Eight Weeks of Writing @ NYU Abu Dhabi designed to inspire people to focus on their scholarly writing with workshops and groups to provide infrastructure and a sense of community in writing. There’s also a new competitive award, which enables faculty members to pursue professional development opportunities at a conference or workshop outside NYU Abu Dhabi to broaden their professional network and to get industry-standard perspectives on their work. There is a Women Faculty Writing Group, a series of leadership development programs, and many initiatives done in collaboration with the University-wide diversity equity and inclusion committee. "We have a very unique population that’s already very diverse," she explains.
"Usually a role like this would focus on getting underrepresented groups in the door, but the next step, and the critical one, is inclusion. That means including diverse voices in research projects, in the classroom, in administration, and in any and every area we engage with the community. My work is to make sure we’re operating according to these institutional values."
And what about where she started, with equality and representation for women? "The most common misconception I come across about Abu Dhabi as a whole is that women can’t succeed here. That women are oppressed and aren’t valued. That’s simply not true," she states.
This is a very supportive place for women. The country’s leadership has been proactive in seeing that women are an essential part of the economy and of society.
She gets frustrated at myths that women can’t drive or work, and the idea that it’s not safe. "I have three of my kids here with me. They love it. It’s very family friendly, very safe and a great place to raise a family." Though she confesses she wasn’t certain what to expect on first arriving. "I didn’t appreciate before I came here what an amazing quality of life we have in the UAE. It’s something every prospective faculty should think about - it’s about having time for family, for reflection, about time to relax — life here is fast paced and work can be demanding. An afternoon at the Louvre Abu Dhabi or sharing a beachside breakfast on the weekend with friends is a wonderful way to recharge. The opportunities to travel in the region are also exciting — we all have the travel bug and compare notes and share photos from our travels all the time."
With all the advantages of living in Abu Dhabi, overall it’s the opportunities within the University for teaching brilliant students, carrying out cutting edge research, and the inclusive environment she’s shouting about.
"Anyone coming into the faculty has the opportunity to input. Come with an open mind — as an institution we’ve gone back to the drawing board to think 'If we want to build a top tier world-class higher-education institution, what would that look like?' And we’re doing it! We’ve been intentional about how we want to be global, diverse and innovative, and we realise to be a leading university, diversity is a must. When will you ever get a chance to be part of something like that again?"
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