“Mentoring is very important to me—it’s my favorite part of the job,” says Erica Kenney. “I devote a lot of time to working with my students, and it is such an honor to have the recognition that what I’m doing is worth it to them.”
One of Kenney’s student nominators, Mary Kathryn Poole, PhD student in population health sciences, jumped at the opportunity to offer such recognition—especially when there aren’t very many avenues in which to do so.
“Other than thanking them, there aren’t often ways to demonstrate how much your mentors help you and how grateful you are to them,” says Poole. “It’s special to be able to lift up professors who have given so much of themselves with a Mendelsohn nomination.”
Kenney and Poole met when Kenney was still a post-doctoral student at Harvard and hired Poole as a research assistant. Kenney applied for her current faculty role around the same time Poole applied to the PhD program, so the two transitioned into their new roles together, working on research surrounding the effect of food policies on child health.
This relationship echoes one of Kenney’s mentoring approaches—ensuring that students get hands-on experience in the field. This strategy can involve working directly on Kenney’s research, or it can entail connecting students to other resources and professors to help each mentee grow into what they want to do and being unique about their research.
“It can be very hard to synthesize skills in the classroom without trying them out in real research,” says Kenney. “As Mary Kathryn and I kept working together, I wanted to ensure she had the chance to do real research and ask her own questions, and could publish papers and present at conferences to get that experience and build her CV. She’s developed some really innovative ideas doing this hands-on work.”
Kenney was also instrumental in helping her students transform their work where needed to help cope with new rules of engagement during COVID-19. When in-person observations of lunches served in child-care facilities were no longer possible, Kenney worked to find other opportunities for professional engagement, such as remotely analyzing data on food insecurity and school meals or Zoom interviews on weight stigma with high school students.
For Poole and her fellow student nominators, the Mendelsohn Awards are a great opportunity to give recognition to a faculty member like Kenney who exemplifies what students value in a mentor.
“Erica is so generous with her time and puts so much thought into her engagement with students in and out of classroom,” says Poole. “She gets to know us and our research interests and finds meaningful ways for us to build skills, whether it’s through research projects, brainstorming questions for our dissertation work, or connecting us to other researchers. She is a perpetual champion for her students.”