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These mentors make a difference for first-generation, minority students

August 8, 2019
five portraits of faculty mentorsFrom left, Roman Sobolewski, Laurel Carney, Mark Buckley, Maya Abtahian, and Douglas Kelley are the inaugural recipients of the David T. Kearns Faculty Mentoring and Teaching awards. (University of Rochester photos)

Five University of Rochester faculty mentors are the inaugural recipients of a new mentorship award from the University’s David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity.

The David T. Kearns Faculty Mentoring and Teaching awards “recognize outstanding faculty members who excel at mentoring and teaching low-income, first-generation, and/or underrepresented minority students who participate in Kearns programs,” says Anthony Plonczynski-Figueroa, director of operations for the Kearns Center. “All of these faculty members have shown an especially strong commitment to these students.”

Two of the faculty members—Laurel Carney, the Marylou Ingram Professor in Biomedical Engineering, and Roman Sobolewski, professor of electrical and computer engineering—are being recognized for their mentorship of University undergraduates who do research each summer through the center’s Xerox Engineering Research Fellows and the Ronald E. McNair program.  The center also sponsors or helps administer three National Science Foundation-funded REU (research experience for undergraduates) programs that bring students to Rochester from other universities for summer research.

The other faculty members—Maya Abtahian, an assistant professor of linguistics; Mark Buckley, an associate professor of biomedical engineering; and Douglas Kelley, associate professor of mechanical engineering—are being recognized for their work with the center’s pre-college programs: Upward Bound, Upward Bound Math/Science, and Talent Search.

Abtahian has been working with high school students in Kearns Center programs for three years, including a summer linguistics exploration course Language and Identity that taught students about the power of their language. She helped plan last summer’s Youth Participatory Research Project, “From Seeds to Fruits: Uncovering oUR Roots” and helped a small subset of students create family “language” trees.

Buckley began working with the Kearns Center in 2014 and was the first faculty member to host a high school “STEMtern” – Upward Bound Math/Science students who complete six-week mentored research projects. Buckley has mentored seven Upward Bound students in research positions. Two of the students later enrolled at the University as undergraduates and another two presented their research at the National Society of Black Engineers annual  convention. Buckley  is also an active mentor with the McNair, REU, and Xerox programs for undergraduates.

Carney was among the first faculty members to mentor a student in the center’s new Kearns Summer Research Scholars Program, which was inaugurated this year to enhance the research experience of students working in labs independently of the center’s formal programs. The students are entitled to the same career and GRE prep seminars, for example, and career outreach and social activities as students participating in the formal programs.

Kelley was the first Hajim School of Engineering and Sciences faculty member to teach a course to Upward Bound students and has continued to teach every summer since 2014, engaging more than 300 pre-college scholars. He has championed the program and assisted with recruitment. Some of his lab members have even been inspired to teach their own Upward Bound courses and volunteer at other program events. Kelley is also an active mentor with the center’s McNair, REU, and Xerox programs for undergraduates.

Sobolewski has been a mentor in the McNair program since its inception in 1992. He was also the PhD advisor for the program’s first PhD awardee, Carlo Williams ’94 (MS ’95) (PhD ’01).

Kudos from students

The center requested recommendations from students to help determine the award winners for undergraduate mentorship, Plonczynski-Figueroa says.

The recommendations for Carney and Sobolewski “stood out,” he says, “because of what the students wrote and the multiple recommendations that came in. We are very excited about these inaugural winners.”

For example, Benjamin Richardson ’21, one of the inaugural Kearns Summer Research Scholars, says that Carney “exceeded every expectation I could have had for a faculty mentor. It is clear in everything she does that she is not only incredibly passionate about what she studies, but passionate about the success of her students.” Students “are instructed to interrupt any presentation in order to ask questions” and “receive consistent and helpful feedback on presentations and analyses we prepare.”

He was grateful he could spend this summer in a research lab where undergraduates are “given the same respect as far more knowledgeable students and faculty.”

Grace Niyo ’21, a Xerox Engineering Research Fellow, says Carney has been not only a mentor, but a friend to her. “She always advises us about classes that might be relevant for our academic interests, conferences and summer programs to apply to, and things we should be doing to prepare ourselves for graduate school.”

Anthony Pericolo ’20, also a Xerox Engineering Research Fellow, appreciated how Sobolewski set aside time for him to get to know all the students in his lab, “making me feel at home.”

Sobolewski “went above and beyond,” he adds, when the project Pericolo and a PhD student were working on came to a standstill earlier in the summer.

“Our measurements were neither consistent with theory nor repeatable, and the project was on the verge of abandonment,” Pericolo says. Thanks to Sobolewski’s “guidance through sharing research papers and posing tough questions,” the students were able to redesign their experiments.

“Dr. Sobolewski’s leadership in the lab turned a seemingly directionless project into one that will produce a paper and a patent.”

Pericolo says he is finishing his summer research program as “a better scientist” thanks to the strong guidance and “nuanced, detailed feedback” he received.

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Category: University News