Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center presents annual awards to five Vanderbilt community members

This spring, the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center named five people from the Vanderbilt community as recipients of its annual awards.

Leadership Award

The Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center Leadership Award honors an undergraduate or graduate student who demonstrates leadership in activities that contribute to the achievements, interests and goals of women or that promote gender equity. This year, two students were recognized with this award.

Anjola-Oluwa Ajayi

Trained as an OB/GYN clinician in her native Nigeria, Anjola-Oluwa Ajayi is a second-year student in the Master of Public Health program in the School of Medicine. A unifying thread in Ajayi’s work and training is learning how to use public health strategies to improve women’s health outcomes. As an intern at the Tennessee Department of Health, Ajayi helped to develop Tennessee’s first maternal health strategic plan. She organized listening sessions across the state to understand how women in Tennessee obtain health care and how to eliminate barriers to access. One of her nominators writes that, as she worked on these sessions, Ajayi “stayed focused, was accountable to deadlines and goals, and remained poised and led with conviction even when obstacles impacted progress.” Other nominators emphasized Ajayi’s care for others, explaining that her “leadership is not just about advancing her own career or accomplishments but about lifting others up and creating a more inclusive and equitable society for all women. Her empathy, compassion and unwavering commitment to the betterment of women’s lives serve as an inspiration to those around her.”

Shaniya Jarrett

The second Leadership Award recipient is Shaniya Jarrett, a second-year astrophysics graduate student in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program. Although Jarrett was involved in science outreach work through her participation as a tutor in the School for Science and Math at Vanderbilt, she wanted to do more to expose Black girls to STEM fields. As a result, she developed a program called AstroBeats: Sounds of the Cosmos. The unique combination of science and music in AstroBeats offered Black girls in middle school the chance to write music using the patterns and statistics from astronomical data. Jarrett’s goal with the program was to develop a way to reach girls who might otherwise not even consider science as a field of study. One of her nominators describes Jarrett as “brilliant, hard-working and dependable.” The work she undertook to make AstroBeats a reality reveals the truth of this assessment: Jarrett raised money by getting a grant from the Women and Girls Astronomy Program; she then recruited students from local middle schools, taught the four-day AstroBeats sessions and hosted a showcase at Dyer Observatory.

Mentoring Award

The Mentoring Award honors a member of the Vanderbilt University community who fosters the professional and intellectual development of Vanderbilt women. This year, two people are being recognized.

Autumn Kujawa

The first recipient of the Mentoring Award is Autumn Kujawa, associate professor of psychology and human development. According to one of her nominators, over the past six years, Kujawa “has provided direct and substantive research-related mentorship to at least 56 women,” more than any other faculty member in her department during this time. Beyond this quantitative assessment of her impact, though, are the testimonies about the significance of her work. One nominator explains that, in her lab, Kujawa “has fostered an environment of encouragement and collaboration where students provide and receive feedback from the whole lab on their projects and have a space to discuss new research methods and trainings…. We learn from each other and share with each other.” Another nominator points to the ways that Kujawa “provides scaffolding for students to explore and identify their own research interests, skills and goals.” Another recommender speaks about the “holistic way” Kujawa cares about her students; she “spends countless hours in meetings with her students and staff, providing the level of care and attention that are so important to helping young people develop their skills and find the direction for their careers.”

Anna Thomas

The second recipient of the Mentoring Award is Anna Thomas, director of events and communications at the Graduate School. Throughout her career at Vanderbilt, Thomas has worked to mentor staff as well as graduate and professional students. One of her recommenders admires Thomas’ passion for “working with women on campus to help them develop professionally and intellectually.” Invested in helping those she mentors move to the next phase of their careers, Thomas seeks to nurture talent and empower those with whom she works. A student who has worked with Thomas appreciates that she “models what it means to be a supportive supervisor by recognizing when the student is overwhelmed and needs time and space to decompress.” Another nominator writes that Thomas “has encouraged me to take ownership of my projects, allowing me to develop problem-solving skills and confidence in my abilities. Additionally, her open communication style has created a supportive and inclusive work environment. She consistently seeks feedback and input, which has empowered me to voice my ideas and opinions without fear of judgment.”

Mary Jane Werthan Award

The Mary Jane Werthan Award is presented annually to an individual who has contributed significantly to the advancement of women at Vanderbilt University. The award honors three qualities characteristic of the first recipient for whom it is named: vision, persistence and extraordinary skill in interpersonal and institutional relations.

Lily Claiborne

This year’s winner of the Mary Jane Werthan Award is Lily Claiborne, assistant professor of the practice in the department of earth and environmental sciences. One of her nominators states that Claiborne has been a “trailblazer for women in geosciences, which is one of the least diverse STEM fields according to the Geological Society of America.” Another nominator writes: “Everything that Lily does is aimed at welcoming all people into our classrooms, our department, our field of study and to Vanderbilt.” Claiborne has developed a set of best practices for field trips and field work to ensure that all participants feel safe and prepared; in addition, she created a fund for field gear so that all EES majors on financial aid can receive funding to offset the costs of field gear such as boots, outdoor clothing and camping gear. One of her recommenders refers to her as a “service powerhouse” for her efforts on Faculty Council and elsewhere to improve the “career opportunities of continuing track faculty, who, at Vanderbilt, are primarily women.” Claiborne has demonstrated “unwavering persistence” in her efforts to “improve institutional systems, often without immediate rewards.” Another recommender writes that Claiborne’s “ability to find humor in failure, coupled with resilience, distinguishes her as someone who not only faces setbacks head-on but also emerges stronger.”