Four honored for their work mentoring graduate students

Four Princeton faculty members have been named the recipients of Graduate Mentoring Awards by the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning and will be honored during the Graduate School's hooding ceremony on Monday, June 2.

They are: Robert Calderbank, professor of electrical engineering, mathematics, and applied and computational mathematics, and director of the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics; Richard Okada, professor of East Asian studies; Richard Register, professor of chemical engineering and director of the Princeton Center for Complex Materials; and Mark Watson, the Howard Harrison and Gabrielle Snyder Beck Professor of Economics and Public Affairs.

The McGraw Center, together with the Graduate School, instituted the award in 2002 to recognize Princeton faculty members whose work with graduate students is particularly outstanding. It is intended to honor faculty members who nurture the intellectual, professional and personal growth of their graduate students.

Graduate students nominate faculty members for the award and, along with faculty members, serve on the committee that selects the winners. One faculty member in each academic division (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and engineering) is chosen. In addition to being honored at the ceremony, each receives a $1,000 award and a commemorative gift.

Calderbank, a professor at Princeton since 2004, is responsible for innovations in data communications and storage that are incorporated in billions of electronic devices and for developing the mathematical framework that underlies quantum computing. He is an expert on coding theory, and his undergraduate and graduate courses explore the interface between mathematics and electrical engineering.

Graduate students in both electrical engineering and applied mathematics praised Calderbank's interest in their academic work, career aspirations and personal passions. "Professor Calderbank has had a profound effect on the intellectual vibrancy of our department. Moreover, he has done so primarily by quietly, but consistently, encouraging graduate students to take the initiative to shape their own intellectual community," one current electrical engineering student said. Another graduate student, who received Calderbank's help in securing an internship, said, "He has always been insightful and supportive, and I know that this is true for everyone he interacts with. … [H]e is a key component to my success as a Princeton graduate student."

Okada, a Princeton faculty member since 1985, studies both classical and modern Japanese literature. Many of his courses and publications have focused on the 11th-century text "The Tale of Genji." At the graduate level, Okada has taught courses on classical narratives, classical poetics, medieval discourse and culture, censorship of Japanese literature in the 1960s and modern writers.

Letters from current and former graduate students described Okada as an exceptional scholar and a critical yet caring mentor. One former student wrote, "Brilliant, accessible, genuinely excited about teaching and supportive even of approaches incompatible with his own work, he also held (and holds) a reputation for fierce rigor that gave me the best possible model of both teaching and scholarship: advice and muscular sympathy from the keenest of critics. In striking — and maintaining, in all seasons — this precarious balance, he was and continues to be the ideal mentor."

Register, who joined the Princeton faculty in 1990, teaches several courses on polymers and is interested in the design of materials with tailored properties for use in new areas of technology. In his lab, he focuses on the synthesis, processing, structure, properties and applications of complex polymers, which ultimately can be used in products from packaging film to laptop displays.

Students commended Register for his interest in the "total development of his graduate students," as one former student wrote, from helping them with their writing and presentation skills to giving them opportunities to direct work in his lab. Said one current student, "I have had few teachers as passionate as he. As an adviser, I feel he is truly unparalleled. If I ever have a question when conducting my research or run into a problem, I know he will be easily accessible to help answer it."

Watson, who joined the faculty in 1995, studies time-series econometrics, empirical macroeconomics and macroeconomic forecasting. He teaches courses on econometric theory, and he is the co-author of "Introduction to Econometrics," considered the leading undergraduate textbook in the field.

Current and former students repeatedly cited Watson as the best professor they have ever had. One former student and thesis advisee wrote, "I was immediately impressed with his kind and joyful personality, the fact that he made me feel extremely comfortable and his ability to always explain the most difficult concepts with clarity and simplicity." Said another former student, "Mark is my role model, as a stellar teacher, as a caring academic mentor and as a wonderful human being. His passion for research, his high career achievement, his genuine care for students and his enthusiastic attitude toward life have a profound impact on his students, and make Mark an extraordinary mentor."