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The Power of a Good Mentor

Posted Friday, 06 April 2012

Honoring the winners of the 2012 Excellence in Mentoring Awards

Professors Amanda Claybaugh in English, Angela DePace in Systems Biology, Carol Oja in Music, and Arthur Spirling in Government are the recipients of the 2012 Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Awards. They were among 54 faculty members recommended by their GSAS students in a total of 104 nomination letters.

The awards, presented on April 4 in a Dudley House ceremony attended by winning and nominated faculty mentors, have been given each year for the last 14 years by the Graduate Student Council. They are named for Professor of the History of Science, Emeritus, Everett I. Mendelsohn, a former master of Dudley House, and they celebrate faculty who go out of their way to mentor GSAS students, supporting them professionally, academically, and personally in ways large and small.

“Mentoring graduate students and guiding them in their growth is among the most important things we do as faculty members,” said GSAS interim dean Richard J. Tarrant at the ceremony. “Yet there is little training, no roadmap, and not much in the way of publicity” about how to fill the mentor’s role productively and effectively. The winners of this award, Tarrant suggested, are helping to write that roadmap, illustrating how — in their different ways, and across their diverse disciplines — faculty are essential community builders.

Professor Jennifer Hochschild, a 2007 Mendelsohn Award winner herself (she calls it one of the most meaningful awards she’s ever received), delivered opening remarks that reinforced the idea that faculty set the tone for a productive work environment for students. The tone-setting often happens in simple, day-to-day, unintentional interactions that can wield an outsize influence, said Hochschild, the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and professor of African and African American studies. Having surveyed former students and colleagues on the matter, she cited a range of examples of off-the-cuff or incidental advice that, in the end, had enduring value for the recipients — or, in some less helpful cases, provoked enduring dismay. Among the gems: “the only thing that counts as writing is writing” and “be passionate about your issue but neutral about the answer.” Faculty need to be aware of their impact, not to unduly burden their consciences, but to put it to good use whenever possible.

You can view the complete list of 2012 Mendelsohn Award nominees on the GSC website.

2012 Everett Mendelsohn Excellence in Mentoring Award Winners

Amanda Claybaugh

Professor of English Amanda Claybaugh, PhD ’01, was praised for her ability to help students across a range of academic interests to become better scholars and better candidates on the job market. One student wrote that “Amanda modeled for us how a premiere scholar can and does prioritize working with students. And while demonstrating how teaching and research can feed off each other, Amanda modeled, too, all the talents she was helping us to develop: the nuances of preparing grant, fellowship, and job applications; in-class best practices; clarity of writing; interview and lecture skills; elegance and consistency in professional self-presentation.” Another student noted that “her keen, incisive critical eye, coupled with her genuine excitement over what her students produce, keeps us motivated to continue producing. It is easy for students to work hard when we know that our advisor is rooting for us.” Still another student, who had been struggling with her dissertation, remarked, “I can remember three distinct occasions during the placement seminar when someone would bring up an intellectual problem he or she had been struggling over for months, and Amanda would just swiftly and incisively solve it — right there before our eyes, moving its parts around and clicking it into place like a Rubik’s cube. On these occasions the awed members of the seminar were literally struck dumb, so that Amanda was actually provoked to ask ‘What’s wrong?’”

 

Angela DePace

ANgela DePace

In nominating, Angela DePace, an assistant professor of Systems Biology, her students commended her candor and dedication to fostering a supportive environment. “By paying close attention to lab culture, Angela has crafted an environment where people feel like they are part of a family that tackles the challenges of science together,” a student wrote. Another of her students said that “she actively encourages us to spend valuable time following our passions outside of science. Too many advisors want their students to spend all their time in lab; Angela wants us to balance our lives so that we have the energy necessary for real inspiration. She believes that happier scientists are better, more creative scientists and subscribes to the idea that science is a form of art — that experiments are a form of self-expression. She encourages us to develop our diverse perspectives on life so that we may have diverse perspectives on science.” One student commended DePace for her “vision to recognize that the same social ties that people develop when they each lunch together carry over into their lab work to create a mutually supportive culture where people help each other interpret data, troubleshoot experiments, and collaborate on projects.”  Another student said that “Angela makes areas of struggle feel like opportunities to improve” — creating “an atmosphere where people can admit mistakes or problems and get help, which I believe improves the quality of science.”

 

Carol Oja

Carol Oja

Carol Oja, the William Powell Mason Professor of Music, was lauded for her constant support and encouragement both inside and outside of a scholastic setting. “Professor Oja has without question challenged me to work to my highest ability, and she has helped me become a stronger thinker and writer. She sets an example in her passion for her work and her dedication. Yet I perhaps most appreciate her ability to hold her advisees to a high standard while also treating us holistically, caring about us as people. She is a role model in her humanity as well as her scholarship,” wrote one student. Another said, “I have looked to her not only for advice and encouragement, but also as an example of how to conduct myself professionally. From my perspective, she has been an example of strength and inspiration as a professional woman, a mother, and a friend.” A third student wrote, “Professor Oja is also a strong advisor because of the unique way in which she nurtures her students’ personal and academic growth. Although she wants us to succeed academically, her first interest is that we are thriving on a personal level. She listens closely to our interests and our research findings, and she fosters our independence by asking questions rather than telling us outright whether one research or professional path is the ‘right’ one.”

 

Arthur Spirling

Arthur Spirling

In nominating Arthur Spirling, an assistant professor of government, students consistently cited his dedication — “unique among junior faculty,” said one — to graduate student training and placement. “Like many other PhD students, I have faced many struggles during my years of researching and writing my dissertation,” one nominator wrote. “Throughout, Arthur has been a reliable source of support and encouragement. From the very beginning, Arthur has reached out to me to check in with me about my progress and offer his counsel. He has been the one to raise the toughest questions about my work, but he is also the one to think about many alternative answers to those questions.” Another student wrote, “Arthur has been a fantastic mentor, someone whom I can e-mail or stop by at any time to ask questions, small or large. I was on the job market in the fall, and despite the fact that Arthur is not on my committee and does not even work in the same subfield, he was incredibly helpful, over and over again. What sticks out even now is how responsive and thoughtful he was, particularly during the moments of most severe stress.” A third student said, “Arthur is second to none when it comes to providing graduate students with feedback on talks and presentations. Indeed, Arthur goes to every single practice job talk given by a graduate student in our department. He asks insightful questions, takes detailed notes, and stays after for the Q&A and critique.”

 

 

Story credit: Joanna Grossman