Twelve MIT faculty honored as “Committed to Caring” for 2020-2021

Honor recognizes faculty mentors who devote true attention to students’ well-being.

Read this at MIT News

The term “mentor” traces back to the ancient Greek author Homer. When Odysseus sets off for Troy, he entrusts his son Telemachus to a close friend, Mentor. Finding Telemachus floundering, the goddess Athena takes on the guise of Mentor, visiting and counseling Telemachus throughout “The Odyssey.” Athena, as Mentor, embodies this transfer of wisdom, compassion, and guidance; the term “mentor” has gone on to capture these sentiments.

Numerous professors at MIT echo this generosity of attention and care in their mentoring relationships with graduate students. The Committed to Caring (C2C) program recognizes outstanding mentors and promotes thoughtful, engaged mentorship throughout the Institute.

For considerate and humanizing acts such as validating students’ identities, inviting students to join in lab and departmental decision-making, and going to great lengths to ensure continuity in funding for students, 12 MIT faculty members were recently honored by their graduate students as stalwart mentors. These new honorees join 48 previous C2C honorees.

The following faculty members are the 2020-21 Committed to Caring Honorees:

  • Daron Acemoglu, Department of Economics;
  • Alfredo Alexander-Katz, Department of Materials Science and Engineering;
  • Kristin Bergmann, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences;
  • Kerri Cahoy, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics;
  • Catherine Drennan, departments of Biology and Chemistry;
  • Colette Heald, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering;
  • Caroline Jones, Department of Architecture;
  • Jesse Kroll, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering;
  • Gene-wei Li, Department of Biology;
  • Anna Mikusheva, Department of Economics;
  • Gigliola Staffilani, Department of Mathematics; and
  • Lawrence Susskind, Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Selecting for generous guidance

Every other year, the Office of Graduate Education invites graduate students to nominate professors for the Committed to Caring honor. A selection committee composed of graduate students and MIT staff members reads the nomination letters, settling on a pool of awardees who devote true attention to their students’ well-being. Selection criteria include the depth and breadth of faculty members’ caring actions, promoting the development of scholarly excellence in students, and the support of diversity, equity, and inclusion within the research groups and the wider community.

This year’s committee included Associate Dean for Graduate Education Suraiya Baluch (chair); Renée Caso (academic programs manager, Department of Architecture); and graduate students Courtney Lesoon (2017-19 C2C graduate community fellow; History, Theory, and Criticism section, Department of Architecture), Ellie Immerman (2019-20 C2C graduate community fellow, departments of History and Science, Technology, and Society), Noam Buckman (Department of Mechanical Engineering), Grace Putka Ahlqvist (Department of Chemistry), and Shayna Hilburg (Department of Materials Science and Engineering).

Baluch writes that she “was deeply moved to read about the many … acts of humanity and compassion that prioritized the well-being of graduate students. So many of the nomination letters spoke to the lasting impact these advisors had on their students’ professional and personal development.” The letters illustrated faculty advisors’ remarkable compassion and eagerness to wholeheartedly support their students.

In particular, these faculty tend to personalize their advising styles to the individual student; work collaboratively with students to navigate distressing life events; reassure students and help renew their love of the discipline when research results go awry; and empower students to guide their own research agendas. In the coming months, each of these honorees will be featured in an MIT News article and an accompanying poster campaign.

Faculty Peer Mentorship Program

During fall 2019, the Office of Graduate Education and Associate Provost Tim Jamison launched a pilot Faculty Peer Mentorship Program (FPMP). Ten of 29 entering untenured faculty members chose to participate. Each was matched with a previous Committed to Caring honoree.

The goal is for pairs to connect regularly throughout the year, discussing how to intentionally craft caring mentoring relationships with graduate students and postdocs. In building mentorship networks, the FPMP will help the Institute enact excellent mentorship as a community value.

Pilot faculty participants come from the schools of Science; Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences; Architecture and Planning; and Engineering. Blanche Staton, senior associate dean for graduate education, is “enthused by the wealth of advising wisdom and the eagerness of faculty members to help build a stronger MIT.”

Amid times of uncertainty and great stress, C2C honorees provide a foundation of support for the community, helping us to weather the strains and take care of each other, as well as ourselves.

Story Image: Top row (l-r): Daron Acemoglu, Kristin Bergmann, Gigliola Staffilani, Catherine Drennan. Middle row (l-r): Anna Mikusheva, Kerri Cahoy, Larry Susskind, Gene-wei Li. Bottom row (l-r): Jesse Kroll, Caroline Jones, Alfredo Alexander-Katz, Colette Heald.