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Path to Professorship

Centennial Campus in the fall

By Cameron Walker

The four alumnae we profile in this story are all professors — ever-curious, perpetual learners with patience and a passion for textiles. They come from different backgrounds, even continents, but they all found their place at the Wilson College of Textiles and in the halls of academia. Read on to learn more about their journey from student to professor.

Dr. Elizabeth Newcomb

Dr. Elizabeth Newcomb

The first thing Wilson College of Textiles triple alumna Dr. Elizabeth Newcomb ever sewed was a project for a flat pattern class taught by Dr. Cynthia Istook.

“I had absolutely no sewing experience at all when I went to the Wilson College of Textiles,” she said. “The first thing I ever made was a bag [Istook] had us make to hold all of our tools for that class. Now, when I teach that class, I tell them that no one was more intimidated by flat pattern than I was, because I learned to sew on the industrial sewing machine and I was absolutely terrified. I thought, ‘Well, there’s no way. I might as well switch back to biochemistry because this is not going to work out.’” However, with weekend sewing lessons from her mom and help from the class teaching assistant (TA), Newcomb learned to sew…and she still uses that bag.

The daughter of a high school math teacher, Newcomb grew up in Goldsboro, NC with a strong math and science background. She entered NC State as a biochemistry major with plans to become a pharmacist, but once she began her studies, she realized she wanted a career with more creativity. Her mentor in the Park Scholarship program suggested she meet with now-retired Kent Hester, then the director of Student and Career Services at the Wilson College of Textiles.

“He told me everything I could do with a major [in what was then textile and apparel management]…and from there, I think I did the paperwork that same day. I mean, I didn’t even think twice,” she said.

No matter what you want to do in textiles, there is no better place to do it than the Wilson College of Textiles.

She graduated in 2003 and went on to earn both her master’s degree (‘05) and Ph.D. (‘09) in textile technology management. She is now an associate professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where she serves her university as program coordinator for the fashion merchandising and design program and as secretary of the faculty senate; conducts research — most recently into the design of functional garments for adults with intellectual and developmental delays; and teaches classes on fit, flat pattern, computer-aided design (CAD) and product development.     

“Teaching [is] an incredibly rewarding career,” she said. “You can see immediate, but long-lasting impact as well, because you can see the aha moment sometimes in a classroom and then later down the road, they will come back and tell you about a job they’ve gotten because of what they learned in class.”

Newcomb got her start teaching as a TA under Istook, helping her in a CAD class. She showed a talent and an interest in teaching, so Istook encouraged her to apply for Preparing the Professoriate, a competitive, year-long professional development program open to doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars planning to become professors; an initiative of The Graduate School, the program consists of a series of workshops, a mentoring relationship with a faculty member and an electronic portfolio in which participants document their experience. She also assisted with the Summer Textile Exploration Program (STEP) for five years.

“When you go into a college teaching profession, there’s no student teaching and I think that the best advice is to take every opportunity you can to get some practice,” she said. “And a great mentor goes a long way. I actually had Cindy [Istook] and also [associate dean emerita] Dr. Nancy Cassill. All the professors I had at the Wilson College of Textiles were great, but those two made lifelong impressions on me.”

Newcomb works hard to be a mentor and model for her own students, and when they express interest in pursuing graduate school, she advocates for her alma mater.

“It is a phenomenal place to learn…There were so many opportunities to really work on the technical side of design and product development, from the fabric to the pattern making and fitting. It’s a unique place that I think can’t be replicated,” she said. “I believe I’m extremely well prepared for the job I have now, and I think if I had gone to a corporate or industry job, I would have been equally well prepared. No matter what you want to do in textiles, there is no better place to do it than the Wilson College of Textiles.”

Dr. Lina Cárdenas

Dr. Lina Cárdenas

“One of my favorite things about teaching is that you learn, every day, something new,” said Dr. Lina Cárdenas, who earned her Ph.D. in fiber and polymer science from NC State in 2009. She currently conducts research and teaches full time as an assistant professor in the design school at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Her expertise extends to technical textiles, coloring and textile finishes, quality control of color, and color perception, among other subjects.

Cárdenas was born in Sogamoso, Colombia, where her family makes and imports hats for sale. She grew up around textiles and decided early in her education that she would pursue a career in the textile field. After graduating college from the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, she reached out to the Wilson College of Textiles to learn more about their graduate programs. After learning she lacked several prerequisite classes, she spent an additional two years taking chemistry and math courses to fulfill those requirements. Her hard work paid off and she was accepted into the master’s of textile chemistry program.

One of my favorite things about teaching is that you learn, every day, something new.

Her first semester was exciting but difficult, as she not only had to adjust to a new culture, but also had to find her place within the many groups that make up the diverse student body.  

“But that was just the first semester; after that, I was a fish in the sea. I was very friendly, I got to meet many people, and some of my best friends right now were my classmates then,” she said. “[Then,] I loved every minute of it. I remember it as a dream come true.”

She initially wanted to work in industry, but found her way to teaching when she moved to her spouse’s home country of Chile.  

I never thought of being a teacher — ever,” she said. “I always imagined myself in industry, but the funny thing is when I talk back with my college and Ph.D. classmates, they always saw me as a professor. I didn’t see it myself, but they all did. They said that I had the patience to teach, and I had the ability to put in very simple words something very complicated…and I really enjoy it.”

Cárdenas is still studying, currently working toward a certificate in education so she can learn to communicate even more effectively with her students.

“To teach, you have to have patience and you really need to prepare yourself,” she said. “There are so many ways to get to your students, so many ways to learn. My advice [for future professors] is to get involved in the education department, or learn techniques for education…I remember at the Wilson College of Textiles, I was teaching in the chemistry lab and it was way different to teach that than to teach the designers. Here, they are very visual, so I have to emphasize that. They are hands on and they need to have things that are beautiful. It’s the same subject, but a very different audience. So that’s one of the challenges to which you have to adjust.”

For Cárdenas, the Wilson College of Textiles expanded her world as she connected with other students, learned about industry, and came to understand the global scale of textiles.

“To me, the Wilson College of Textiles has opened my mind and set me to think that there are no boundaries and no limits for what you want,” she said. “I tell my students just to keep dreaming and not to limit yourself because of money or because of your background…[At NC State,] it was the whole experience of being with other cultures and traditions. I learned how all of the textile industries work around the world. It was also the whole experience of being there, being around other people from different textile industries and countries, and one of the things I appreciated the most was the real relationship with industry. That was for me very valuable and helped me a lot in my career.”

Dr. Ruth Adikorley

Dr. Ruth Adikorley

Growing up in Ghana, Dr. Ruth Adikorley wanted to be an officer of the law like her father, who worked for the Bureau of National Investigation. But a fashion hobby became a passion and then blossomed into a career in textiles. She is now an assistant professor at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri, teaching in the fashion merchandising program.

“In Ghana…[fashion] is more customized, not mass-produced,” she said. “You basically buy the fabric and a seamstress will make the garment for you based on what you want. I started seeing all these clothes and drawing what I wanted for myself…so I developed a love of textiles from that point.”

Her high school required her to specialize in either visual arts, home economics, journalism or the sciences. She chose visual arts, and then narrowed that focus to textiles when she attended college at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana’s Ashanti region. She earned her M.S. in apparel, textiles and merchandising from Ohio University in 2013, before moving to North Carolina to attend the Wilson College of Textiles. She earned her Ph.D. in textile technology management in 2016.

Be prepared that graduate school is not going to be an easy road, but the determination that you have makes it all worth it at the end of the day.

“During my master’s, my advisor realized how I loved production and technology within the industry…She felt that getting my Ph.D. in something related to that would be really cool, so she recommended NC State. I went online and looked at the programs,” she said. “I applied to NC State and I did not apply to anywhere else. I put all my eggs in one basket and something good came out of it.”

During her studies, she formed lasting friendships with faculty, staff and fellow students. She served as a graduate research assistant for the Zeis Textiles Extension (ZTE), which she calls an extension of her family.

“I enjoyed my stay at the Wilson College of Textiles. It wasn’t easy, but it was fun. I had a good support system from some of the faculty members there, as well as friends and colleagues that I met, who all had different experiences,” she said. “We got stronger through the process. They are still my friends right now and we talk whenever we get a chance. [Everyone at ZTE] was very supportive when I did my graduate assistantship — from Ms. Jan to Latoya to Debbie to Melissa to Jeff Blessinger. They are all really amazing people. I enjoyed my stay and I’m really blessed to be an alum.”

In 2017, she published a paper in the Research Journal of Textile and Apparel titled “Apparel sourcing in Sub-Saharan Africa: Views from apparel sourcing executives and trade policy representatives,” based on work from her dissertation. It won the 2018 Emerald Literati Award for Outstanding Paper. Her co-authors on the paper were Dr. Kristin Thoney-Barletta, Dr. Jeff Joines and Dr. Lori Rothenberg, all from the Wilson College of Textiles.

Adikorley was a fellow in the Preparing the Professoriate program, which helped lay the groundwork for her current role as she learned how to teach in different environments and connect with students. She believes that building students’ confidence in their abilities is an important part of her job.

“Fontbonne is a small institution, so we have a small classroom size, which is always great, because you get to build relationships with the students,” she said. “One of the things I like about it is being able to assure students that they can actually grow, learning these concepts and theories within the industry. I [am able to]catch those that really need attention and guide them back on track…I really enjoy teaching and being able to help students understand.”

She teaches the fundamentals of textiles, product development and visual merchandising, among others, and enjoys helping her students see how their classwork is relevant to the industry.

“In one of my classes, Advanced Product Development, we take tours of different companies here in the St. Louis area for the students to learn about the corporate world,” she said. “We go through the whole tour and see what the different departments do, and I have them write a report about the trip…It’s always refreshing when you read these reports and students can see the importance of the courses they are taking and how they relate to industry.”

Making this connection is important so that students understand the reason they are working so hard — that classes are not just a series of exercises, but an introduction to concepts and skills they will actually draw upon in their careers.

Adikorley had a similar realization while working toward her Ph.D. During a particularly difficult day in graduate school, a faculty member once said to her, ‘Ruth, if it was easy, everybody would have a Ph.D.’ She realized he was right — that the work was worth the effort — and worked even harder to succeed.

“Be prepared that graduate school is not going to be an easy road, but the determination that you have makes it all worth it at the end of the day,” she said. “It will always be worth it, because you’ve put in that time, that effort and all your resources into making it happen.

Dr. Meredith McQuerry

Dr. Meredith McQuerry

“I originally went to college to become a teacher; I wanted to teach family and consumer sciences, formerly known as home economics,” said alumna Dr. Meredith McQuerry, now a professor in the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship at Florida State University. “I had a passion for teaching early on. It was something I always wanted to do and felt called to do and I enjoyed doing it…but I took a very untraditional route there.”

She “fell in love with textiles” in her introduction to textiles course early in her college career, and realized that she was talented at science and math when they were applied in the context of textiles. When she was a sophomore at the University of Kentucky, her professor offered her an opportunity to work in the textile testing lab.

“I just soaked it all up,” she said. “I loved doing the hands-on lab testing. I got involved in structural firefighting personal protective equipment (PPE) research as an undergraduate and it just took off from there. It was the first time I realized I had a passion for research and that the field of academia allowed me to combine my passion for teaching and research together in the same career.”

I look back on my time there very fondly…It was a very challenging environment. It pushed me to learn new information and get outside my comfort zone…but I’m so thankful for that.

As an undergrad, she worked on a project sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security that focused on the durability of structural firefighter clothing.

“I got my first hands-on experience working with firefighter gear as an undergraduate, and I continued on in my master’s. It really gave me a sense of purpose that maybe one day, all of this hard work would improve the safety, the comfort, the performance of our first responders  and that what I was doing was making a real difference,” she said.

McQuerry double majored, earning a B.S. in merchandising, apparel and textiles and a B.S. in family and consumer sciences education from the University of Kentucky in 2012. She graduated with her master’s degree in textile science from the same institution in 2013, then earned her Ph.D. in textile technology management from NC State in 2016.

“I look back on my time there very fondly,” she said. “The research group, especially the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC), was so supportive and welcoming. It was a very challenging environment. It pushed me to learn new information and get outside my comfort zone…but I’m so thankful for that.”

She found that one of the most important resources within TPACC and at the Wilson College of Textiles was the people, whether they were fellow students or professors.

“The peer support was incredible, not only my peers in the graduate program, but our research associates, our research professors — everyone was on board,” she said. “It was very much a team environment. Everyone was motivated and understood that the purpose, at the end of the day, was to save lives. That’s what we were there to do. That was our ultimate goal and we felt like we were working for the greater good…within the Wilson College of Textiles, I have so many connections there, professors I stay in touch with and former friends who are now colleagues there.”

In her current position as a professor in the retail entrepreneurship program, she is able to teach and continue to conduct her research, which is based on human performance and clothing. She teaches an introduction to textile science course and an upper level quality assurance textiles and apparel course, and supervises the textile testing lab, which is used for testing, research and service purposes including flammability testing, fiber identification, colorfastness and instrumental color assessment.

“Being able to share or give the same opportunities that I was given to undergraduate and graduate students brings me a lot of joy,” she said. “To be able to watch students develop a passion, particularly for textiles, and to provide them with an opportunity to get more hands-on experience in the lab, to formulate their own research questions and design experiments to answer those questions, to see the confidence that they build from doing that, from being able to go to national and international conferences and present that research in a setting where others are challenging them and also validating their work — that’s very rewarding to me. To see them want to go on and pursue careers in that side of the industry or to pursue graduate education is really what I find the most rewarding.”

For those who may want to pursue a career as a professor, McQuerry recommends taking the first step: talk to your professors.

“Get their perspective on what life is like in academia. Make sure you express [your desire to join academia] to them,” she said. “That was one of the very first things I expressed to Dr. [Roger] Barker as I was going through the application process — that I wanted to get my Ph.D. and [teaching] was my end goal. He was supportive from day one.”

Barker helped her achieve her goal, supporting her desire to publish by reviewing her manuscripts and providing feedback.

“By the time I graduated, I had published five articles with his support. I think that played a huge role in my marketability when I was applying for jobs in academia. Tenure-track positions with a Research I university are extremely hard to find [so] I was very fortunate that I had the research background and something to show for it on my CV,” she said.

She seized every chance she could to augment her studies, including conducting research, penning journal articles, writing grants and mentoring for a senior design group.

“I would certainly encourage students that if they want to be in academia, that they take advantage of these opportunities now,” she said. “Express to your major professor that you want to publish, you want to be part of manuscript development and writing, to be part of the development of new research projects to understand how they come to fruition…Don’t be afraid to express what you want to do and where you think your research should go within whatever constraints you are given. My major professors were really open to that and supported me and that was a really valuable experience.”

McQuerry received the AATCC Future Leaders Award at the organization’s International Conference, held in Fort Worth, Texas on April 15, 2019. According to AATCC, the award “recognizes promising young professionals in the fields of textiles, apparel, and related material sciences.”

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Written by Cameron Walker