Four faculty members honored for excellence in mentoring graduate students

May 19, 2015, 9:45 a.m.

Four Princeton University faculty members have been named recipients of the Graduate Mentoring Awards by the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning and will be honored during the Graduate School's Hooding ceremony Monday, June 1, on Cannon Green.

They are Janet Currie, the Henry Putnam Professor of Economics and Public Affairs; Michael Mueller, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Imani Perry, professor of African American studies; and Daniel Sigman, the Dusenbury Professor of Geological and Geophysical Sciences in the Department of Geosciences.

The McGraw Center, together with the Graduate School, instituted the mentoring 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. The award honors faculty in each academic division (engineering, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences) and includes $1,000 and a commemorative gift.

Currie, who joined the University in 2011, also is director of the Center for Health and Wellbeing and chair of the Department of Economics. Currie's research focuses on the health and well-being of children, particularly socioeconomic differences in child health, environmental threats to children's health and the long-term effects of poor health in early childhood.

Graduate students describe Currie as responsive and insightful — she is readily available to help aspiring researchers develop their ideas further and present them publicly. One student said that Currie was "crucial in the evolution of my research," while another student described her as a "superwoman," who deftly balances her roles as mentor, researcher and administrator. A graduate student wrote: "[She] has a rare ability to immediately grasp the core issues at the heart of every project, and link every topic to a wide array of practical implications and related research efforts. She is always available, thoroughly reads drafts and provides detailed feedback, even on short notice. Managing this level of advising while excelling both as a researcher and as an administrator is all the more impressive."

Mueller, whose research focuses on high-fidelity computational modeling of turbulent reacting flows, joined the University in 2012.

Mueller is patient and encouraging with graduate students, always urging them to push themselves intellectually while making himself available for when they struggle. One student said that Mueller is "very intelligent, motivational and works sunup to sundown for his students," and is sensitive "to the range of trials and tribulations associated with graduate study." Another wrote that, "because of his continuous willingness to help, in under a year I have gone from being completely uninitiated in the field of turbulent combustion to writing a paper for a combustion conference." "Looking back," another student wrote, "I realize that Michael wanted to bring me out of my comfort zone so that I could mature intellectually."

Perry, who joined the University in 2009, studies race and African American culture through the lens of multiple disciplines including law, literary and cultural studies, music, and the social sciences. Graduate students describe Perry as being a rigorous scholar yet one who is understanding of the anxieties they experience. One student, who said that Perry convinced him to continue his graduate education during a period of difficulty, said: "In no uncertain terms, Imani Perry is the most brilliant, impactful educator I have ever come across…. I can say without hesitation that Dr. Perry has shaped not only my teaching philosophy as it pertains to the classroom, but also my thinking about the most effective ways to mentor graduate students."

Another said that Perry lends her mastery of numerous disciplines to students seeking their academic niche, and provides encouraging perspectives on projects and career development. "If I had to choose one phrase to characterize Dr. Perry," this student wrote, "it would be that she truly cares about her students not just as scholars, but also as people."

Sigman joined the Princeton faculty in 2000 and focuses his research on the current and historical global cycles of biologically active elements, in particular, nitrogen and carbon. Sigman received a MacArthur Fellows Program "genius grant" in 2009.

Sigman is described by current and past graduate students as a tireless researcher who, as one former student wrote, "is challenging, but he challenges you as much as he challenges himself." Sigman encourages students to think and work independently and, as another student characterized him, values "taking ownership of a project rather than having tasks dictated to you, with the knowledge that those who learn to direct themselves are well prepared for future endeavors." Nonetheless, Sigman is an accessible mentor who readily engages students in discussions of their work, "who doesn't let you get lost, who does not let you give up, who pushes you to find a solution and who is able to re-motivate you again by just being him," as one past Ph.D. candidate wrote. Another student concluded that Sigman "is just plain fun to work with, as well as brilliant. Nearly every conversation I had with him about my research led to an 'ah-ha!' moment."