Being awarded tenure from a higher education institution means many things to the professors who achieve it, such as increased job security, a pay raise, and more flexibility to focus on different projects.
For recent tenure recipient Irina Alvestad, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of New Mexico Los Alamos, it represents her commitment to the University and her students.
“It’s about recognition and to prove I’m committed to this institution and to the students,” she said. “Any faculty member here would say the same thing, that we’re here for what we get out of teaching.” She joins just four other faculty members at UNM-LA who have tenure.
The six-year evaluation process to gain tenure requires substantial documentation.
“Dr. Alvestad put together an excellent package of materials documenting her contributions to UNM-LA and received outstanding evaluations from the various committees and individuals who reviewed her work throughout the process.” Dean of Instruction Dr. Cynthia J. Rooney said. “This tenure and promotion decision acknowledges Irina’s excellent performance, and exemplifies the high quality of individuals teaching at UNM-Los Alamos.”
Seventy-eight percent of the faculty at UNM-LA boast Masters or Ph.D. degrees compared with a national average of 20 percent at two-year institutions.
Alvestad attended UNM and earned a doctorate degree in mathematics there 10 years ago. She spent summers doing research at LANL. Through her connections to the science and math community at the Lab and the University, she has been able to help students find internships and even full time employment there.
“I had a student who was interested in obtaining an internship at the Lab,” she said. “I put the word out and it took over a year to find the right person who needed an engineering student, but now he actually has a job there.”
This is typical of Alvestad’s dedication to her students, and she said it is a true pleasure to see them succeed. “That former student came to see me recently looking for his own intern,” she said. “I really enjoy when they come and see me; it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see them move on with their coursework and their lives.”
Alvestad taught math as a graduate student and also worked as a research assistant at the UNM main campus. During her eight years at UNM-LA, she has taught every math class offered, from entry- to 300-level through Extended University, and this summer she is teaching Trigonometry and Calculus I.
Alvestad especially enjoys teaching classes in sequence, such as Calculus I, then Calculus II, and finally Calculus III, so that students who are familiar with her methods progress through the coursework together.
Her style of teaching is different than what might be found in many math classrooms, she explained. Her students do not focus on the memorization of multiple formulas, but rather they learn how to derive a few key formulas that can be applied to determine other formulas or relationships.
“I show students how to put concepts together and how to make connections,” she said. “Students who are able to let go of memorization and are open to my way of thinking become more self confident going forward.”
It is also important to Alvestad to be a role model for female students in the male-dominated fields of study. “I want them to see that I graduated with a degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and they can, too,” she said. “Yes, there were days it wasn’t easy—it isn’t easy, but I encourage them to not give up.”
Some of Alvestad’s noteworthy achievements at UNM-LA include proposing and winning two National Science Foundation grants, a rare accomplishment at a two-year school. With the first grant for $874,000, she developed an Applied Technologies Associate degree program that addressed the need for workers with special skills in electro-mechanical technology, solar technology, and nanotechnology. With the NSF funding, the program implemented relevant hands-on and project based learning across the curriculum to increase students’ motivation and learning.
A key component of this project was to acquire a suite of modern instrumentation necessary to achieve the high-quality training required to meet employers’ needs. The grant also funded summer professional development opportunities for middle and high school teachers with a focus on hands-on projects and practical lesson plans in various technologies developed by the program.
Her second NSF grant proposal was a collaboration with Don Davis, Assistant Professor of Applied Sciences, to bring climate research to the University and to develop a program of studies with a research component centered on climate change and its impact on our regional water resources. Alvestad and Davis are currently writing another NSF grant proposal for the robotics program. “Grant work is something I’m very interested in,” she said. “Bringing in funding for different projects is really rewarding.”
Besides serving as a full-time faculty member and a grant manager, Alvestad was the Applied Science Department Chair for five years, a position she will resume in the fall. The department chairs are involved in everything from class scheduling to faculty recruitment to outreach programs. “I’m a mathematician and I don’t know things like drafting or electronics, so I’ve really enjoyed working with lots of people from different fields as the chair,” she said. “It’s very challenging and very rewarding for me, and everybody has been cooperative in making sure the students have a good learning environment.”
Looking to the future at UNM-LA, Alvestad would like to focus on a few key programs that could be developed and promoted successfully and cost effectively, specifically she is interested in working with the engineering program. She also supports more collaboration between faculty and students with LANL scientists for research projects.
“I’m optimistic, it’s my nature,” Alvestad said. “Hopefully, as a chair next year and as a tenured faculty member, I can get involved, be even more engaged, and contribute more.”