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Many grad students could not attain what they do, whether it’s awards or expertise and future teaching positions, without a bit or a lot of help from faculty members who care about individual students.  Faculty who share themselves in this vital way were also honored in recent weeks, two groups in a warm gathering high in Tan Hall, and two individuals by friendly sneak-attack when they least suspected it.

The warm gathering: Sarlo and FMA honors

Up in the McCollum Room on the seventh floor of Tan Kah Kee Hall, the Graduate Division joined the Graduate Assembly for the fifth year in a row to bestow honors on behalf of their respective organizations to faculty members who mentor graduate students.

The event’s host was Graduate Dean Andrew Szeri, who described the awards that would be presented and indicated some of the energy that lay behind the nominations.  In all, for both groups’ awards, he said, “32 faculty members were nominated, and supporting letters were submitted by 225 individuals.”  Those letters, he continued, “are incredibly inspirational to read, and form a wonderful guidebook for the way in which faculty should aspire to work with graduate students.”

The honors were, respectively, the Sarlo Distinguished Graduate Student Mentoring Awards (presented by the Graduate Division and sponsored by a grant from the Sarlo Foundation, a supporting organization of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties), given to a junior and a senior faculty member who mentor graduate students extraordinarily well; and the Graduate Assembly’s Faculty Mentor Awards, which go to both Academic Senate members and non-Senate faculty who in outstanding ways mentor, develop, and support graduate students in their role as researchers.

The event’s principal speaker, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer, quoted from two of the inspirational nomination letters, one for a Sarlo winner:

“The most valuable thing a faculty member can do is to take a graduate student (or a promising undergraduate student) seriously, to insist from the very first day on methodological standards, on rigorous research, and on the importance of saying something new while staying true to the texts one studies.  I have never met anyone who could criticize in such an inspiring way… a critique that excites you not only about your own work but also about your discipline as a whole.”

… and one for Faculty Mentor Award winner:

“I have come to recognize what makes an excellent professional mentor.  He possesses the uncanny ability to make himself available to others.,.. despite his insanely busy schedule. …When you interact with (him) there is never any doubt that you have his fullest attention. …His mentoring style makes my own ideas better. … Through (our) interactions in my first semester in my first year as a graduate student, I was able to put ideas together that were worthy of being funded by the NSF; I could not have done that on my own.”

Breslauer continued, “The recipients of these awards raise the bar for excellence toward which we all strive.”

First presented were the Sarlo Awards.

The junior faculty Sarlo winner was Maria Paz Gutierrez, an assistant professor in the College of Environmental Design’s Department of Architecture whose research centers on sustainable building systems through interdisciplinary collaboration.   Her students describe her mentorship style as “inspirational, motivational, and pioneering” and call her “a generous source of advice and constructive criticism who has made a critical impact on the ethos of her entire school.”

The senior Sarlo winner was Irina Paperno, a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures in the College of Letters and Science.   Paperno, by all reports, has “transformed the Slavic department into the leading interdisciplinary program in the country.”  With an intense commitment to students characterized by energy, rigor, and drive, she nonetheless, according to a colleague, “has shown extraordinary sensitivity to graduate students struggling to balance the needs of academia with their responsibilities to their families.”  A former student, now at another university, said, “Berkeley students continually get the best tenure-track jobs…because her recommendations are so trusted and valued by scholars in the field.”

In the second half of the program, officiated by Graduate Assembly Campus Affairs Vice President Danielle Love, the GA’s Faculty Mentor Awards went — by proxy, because all three actual winners were away from campus for the same basic reason — to Barrie Thorne, professor of sociology and of gender and women’s studies (“a grandmaster of professional networking” who “pulled back the curtain” on faculty life, told each student “sing your song” and encouraged pushing disciplinary boundaries); David Ackerly, associate professor of integrative biology (“Infectious curiosity, delight in new discovery,” possessed of an “uncanny ability to make himself available to others despite his insanely busy schedule”); and Jennifer Miller, associate professor of English (a “rigorous, challenging, and brilliant interlocutor,” an “invaluable model” as a mother of two young children herself, her former students are “educating a new generation of medievalists”). (All three recipients were scattered around the globe on sabbatical, Thorne in Norway, Ackerly in South Africa, and Miller in England.)

More information about these awards may be found on the websites for the respective awards.

The friendly sneak-attacks on GSI mentoring winners

The Sarlo-FMA ceremony concluded, but the rewarding of faculty mentors went on, in two acts, to those in a specific subcategory of faculty mentors.  There was no central ceremony, because the schedules of those slated for the honor precluded that option, but a solution was found, and it continued the recent tradition of completely surprising the recipients of the Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs.  This award is given by the Graduate Division’s GSI Teaching and Resource Center and the Graduate Council’s Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs. (The Graduate Council, which guides the Graduate Division, is a committee of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate.)

In the last few years, these awards have been suddenly and unexpectedly presented to each recipient, usually during a class or the next best  opportunity.

Maura Nolan and Sam Otter
Moments of merriment abounded in the office of English chair (and co-conspirator) Sam Otter (laughing) during the surprise mentoring award presentation to Maura Nolan (seated with balloons, flowers, and certificate). (photo: Peg Skorpinski)

“Victim” One

This year, for instance, Maura Nolan thought she was in English Department chair Sam Otter’s office simply attending a meeting with others involved in the department’s Chernin Mentoring Program when the door opened and the office filled with her tribe of GSIs (who had nominated her) and a small band of people from the Graduate Division, with whom they had conspired.  She still didn’t know what was up until chemical and biomolecular engineering department chair (and chair of the Faculty Committee for GSI Affairs) Jeffrey Reimer explained the award in a nutshell and congratulated her for winning one this year.

Nolan was, as hoped, stunned.  “I’m totally shocked,” she said.  “I don’t know what to say, I really don’t. I’m so honored.  Just hearing from people who were my GSIs and Chernin Fellows — I’m completely speechless. You were so incredible to work with, each and every one of you.  I never imagined I would get an award like this.”  Chair Otter added, “This is just a small recognition for the extraordinary work you’ve done mentoring GSIs, in teaching in the department, and especially in the Chernin Program.”  Noland is the first-ever director of the Chernin Program, in which three faculty members and six graduate students mentor 240 undergraduates, “enriching and humanizing their experience of the English major and sparking dialogue.”  In nominating Nolan, her GSIs said that “with remarkable grace, she navigated the delicate line between guidance and regulation, fostering our independence even while she was carefully steering and advising us.”

Susan Muller surrounded by GSIs

“Victim” Two

A few days later, in early May, chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Susan Muller, spending a sabbatical year at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (and even wearing a Radcliffe scarf at the time)  was on her computer there, and logged into Skype, which would enable her to have a high-tech face-to-face chat to catch up with her Berkeley department colleague and friend Jeff Reimer, who like Muller, is a former Graduate Division associate dean.

Once they were both on the line and could see each other on their computer screens, Reimer cheerfully hijacked the conversation, telling her that on behalf of the Faculty Advisory Committee for GSI Affairs, he was pleased to present her with a  Faculty Award for Outstanding Mentorship of GSIs.  Muller smiled with her usual imperturbable calm and thanked him, amused at the electronic ambush.  Reimer mimed handing her the framed award certificate, and she reached for it as if it would disassemble into the monitor and appear in her hands, the final piece necessary in making the science fiction atmosphere a fully-rounded reality.

Then Muller’s GSI-nominators (whose letters had characterized Muller as clear and straightforward, endearingly kind, and funny) suddenly poured into the camera angle around Reimer, and she thanked them, too, and had a short virtual reunion before all signed off and adjourned to their respective Cambridge, MA, and Berkeley, CA, activities.

Just another 21st-century day at the office.