Skip to Content
2024 Salute to Women in FIU History

2024 Salute to Women in FIU History

March 1, 2024 at 7:20am

It’s Women’s History Month, and FIU has plenty of remarkable women to credit for its success. The individuals featured here, one retired from the university and two still very much on the front lines, join an impressive list of trailblazers who embraced great challenges, led by example and established legacies that still impact us today.

In the early 1950s, the parents of the future dean of the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing & Health Sciences secured permission for their brilliant three-year-old to spend time in a North Carolina elementary school because preschool had not yet been invented. One of 10 siblings, observant Ora Strickland eagerly followed around her successful farmer father – a respected community leader and Baptist minister who annually grew 80 acres of tobacco and raised 65,000 chickens – as he negotiated deals for equipment and interacted with buyers. Flash forward, and high school valedictorian Ora would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree and then, from Boston University, a master’s and nurse practitioner degrees and, in her 20s, a Ph.D. (in record time) from UNC Greensboro. In between, she insisted on practicing real-world nursing at Harlem Hospital and even landed an American Nurses Association health policy fellowship and a congressional internship that taught her skills she would use years later to successfully petition for the creation of the National Institute of Nursing Research within the National Institutes of Health. (More recently, she relied on that experience to advocate for and help secure $125 million in recurring funds for nursing education programs throughout Florida.)

As a first-time faculty member, Strickland experienced pushback from those who didn’t trust the young “upstart.” She soon won over the doubters with a federal grant to train 250 nurses from across the country in a first-of-its-kind program that introduced the idea of evidence-based practice as the foundation for assessing outcomes for both nursing education and patient care. “No one had done that before, and they thought I was off the wall,” she recalls of what has since become the standard approach. “I brought the nursing profession along, kicking and screaming,” she adds of those who felt she overstepped her bounds. “I was kind of a rebel in nursing.”

Throughout her career, Strickland fielded offers of deanships but never felt called to veer from the research, writing and teaching she loved. (“My students,” she replies when asked of what she is most proud.) As a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Strickland crossed paths with a former associate of Martin Luther King Jr. The man recognized her from health information segments on local news and implored her to apply her talents at a minority-serving institution. When FIU’s school of nursing came knocking in 2011 – as a consultant, Strickland had earlier helped establish its Ph.D. program (she had a hand in establishing doctoral programs at Emory, the University of Maryland, Johns Hopkins, Ohio State, Indiana University and others) – she readily accepted the top job and in short order brought the school into the Top 50 nationally, elevated first-time board passage rates to above 90% across all programs and attracted a transformational philanthropic gift. “I thank God for the pleasure of working with and serving FIU and its surrounding communities,” says Strickland, recently retired and currently working on her 13th book. “It’s been a joy.”

In everyone’s opinion but her own, Marianna Baum is a badass. Folks in the know – including the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, which in 2022 officially conferred the unconventional title on the distinguished university professor – recognize her leadership and investigational prowess as all that and more.

Baum set the tenor for her career decades ago when she secured tens of millions of dollars in NIH funding at another institution for seminal work in nutrition supplementation for patients with HIV and AIDS, a field she pioneered. Pursued by FIU, she joined the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work in 2001 and soon after began travelling to Botswana, then the country with the world’s highest rate of HIV infection, as the leader of a clinical trial targeted at young women often-intentionally exposed to the virus. “We saved millions of lives,” Baum says of the extraordinary effort to extend people’s health until antiretroviral drugs became available to them. Her many other projects include three ongoing, long-term studies – two of them around COVID and launched with federal dollars soon after the pandemic began – based out of her research clinic in downtown Miami. There she oversees a 15-member team that regularly interviews, examines and collects samples from more than 1,500 individuals within the community.

Alumna and current doctoral candidate Haley Fonseca works as a research coordinator in the clinic and cannot say enough about Baum’s investment in her future. “I’m confident that any job that I get after graduation, I’m prepared because of the mentoring that Dr. Baum has given me,” says Fonseca, who is included in important meetings, has been encouraged to share her opinion and appears as the first author on four published papers.

Today, Baum has a career total of nearly $100 million in grants. She is an FIU Top Scholar with hundreds of publications and conference presentations to her credit and a fellow of the American College of Clinical Pharmacology. Yet, she remains on the fence about the moniker many affix to her. “I don’t really consider myself badass,” laughs the mother of two sons (an attorney and a partner in a private equity firm, she says proudly), who grew up in the former Czechoslovakia to well-educated parents who pushed her to excel. “I just work hard. I try to help as many people as I can through my work.”

Marilys Nepomechie arrived on campus in 1997 as a licensed, working architect to direct a new graduate program and along the way has exerted a critical influence on those aspiring to create the world of the 21st century. Drawn to her career through a beloved father whose built designs in Cuba, where she was born, still stand as exemplars of midcentury style, Nepomechie has earned dozens of awards for her professional and academic projects as well as research grants and funding in support of national and international exhibitions. She has delivered lectures and presentations around the world, served as elected national president of the National Architectural Accreditation Board and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and co-directed the education commission of the International Union of Architects.

That broad experience has crystallized the big picture: “If you are in any of the professions that help build the physical community in which we live, you have a responsibility to that community to be actively engaged,” Nepomechie says. “Whether it be through advocating for better infrastructure, for more effective transit, for affordability and accessibility in housing, for urban resilience, in all these areas of critical impact, architects have unique agency. Our expertise makes it possible for us to speak compellingly, with powerful voices.” To that end, she has ensured the next generation understands the increasing demands the natural environment poses on the built environment. In 2010, she led a multidisciplinary group of students in the creation of a demonstration solar home commissioned by the Department of Energy. In 2015, she spearheaded “Miami 2100: Envisioning a Resilient Second Century,” a museum exhibition about planning for climate change and for which students constructed a scale model of greater Miami outfitted with lights to simulate the anticipated gradual rise in sea level. “A lot of public policy, education and advocacy started in earnest at that time,” Nepomechie says of how local politicians and groups responded to the powerful display and accompanying lectures.

Alumna Ana Benatuil M.Arch ’13 attests to Nepomechie’s impact. “Without her guidance, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says the senior associate and technical director for the Miami office of global architecture firm Gensler, which has made designing for coastal resilience a focus and collaborated with Nepomechie on a critical report. Benatuil recalls her mentor inviting to class scientists and officials of the South Florida Water Management District so that students might understand the future in which they would be working and begin their research into the issues. “She had an attitude of always questioning what has been done, what can be done and what is possible,” Benatuil says. “She would push us to really dig deep.”

Know of another FIU legend who deserves a shout-out? Email a note to (But first check out a list of those featured previously.)