For Chris Rycroft, a fundamental characteristic of his mentoring is to take the time and care to help develop his students’ academic success as well as their mental well-being.
Rycroft cultivates friendly relationships with his mentees, and they enjoy pastimes outside of traditional research together. For several years pre-COVID-19, he took a group of his students with him on month-long summer trips to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, where he is a visiting faculty scientist. Not only do students get to aid him in his research on projects in energy production and efficiency, but they also go on weekend hikes, compete in Pictionary battles, and take part in one of Rycroft’s most well-known pastimes: color coordinating outfits.
“I find having deeper relationships with my students very fulfilling,” says Rycroft. “When I think back to my time as a graduate student and the academic and personal challenges I faced, it was a time of great personal growth. I try to help my students through similar challenges by giving them constructive advice.”
Jovana Andrejevic, one of Rycroft’s mentees and student nominators for the Mendelsohn Award, first met him when she applied to Harvard in 2015. She arrived one day before the official open house for prospective students, and she was surprised and delighted to find that Rycroft has taken the time to arrange a personal itinerary for her to meet with several faculty and current graduate students to introduce her to the department.
“Since early on in my time [here], it was apparent to me that Chris considers building strong relationships and fostering a welcoming community as central to a successful research environment,” says Andrejevic. “I am incredibly grateful for his mentorship and personal dedication to his students beyond their academic development.”
Another important aspect in Rycroft’s mentoring methodology is to increase diversity and representation in his field of computational and applied mathematics, particularly by mentoring women.
“As a graduate student myself, I think that the underrepresentation of women in mathematics was invisible to me,” says Rycroft. “But as time went on, I increasingly realized how women face many additional challenges in STEM, including professional and family pressures. My research group has a majority of women, which is almost unheard of in applied math, and it has meant a lot to me to build a team like that.”
Rycroft is also a faculty mentor for Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering at GSAS (HGWISE) and is currently the only male mentor in the program.
Overall, Rycroft enjoys motivating his students by speaking to their sense of curiosity about the world and using that inquisitiveness to solve scientific problems.
“When I think about my job as a professor and what gets me up in the morning, one of the main things is being able to work with talented young people and guide them,” says Rycroft. “I feel honored and touched that my students appreciate me in such a way.”