Four faculty members honored for excellence in mentoring graduate students
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 virtual Hooding ceremony at 4 p.m., Friday, May 29.
The award winners are Yuxin Chen, assistant professor of electrical engineering; Ileana Cristea, professor of molecular biology; Brandon Stewart, assistant professor of sociology; and Judith Weisenfeld, the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion and chair of the Department of Religion.
The mentoring award recognizes Princeton faculty members who nurture the intellectual, professional and personal growth of their graduate students. Graduate students nominate faculty members for the award, and they serve on the committee that selects the winners together with faculty members, senior staff from the McGraw Center and the deputy dean of the Graduate School. The award honors faculty in each academic division (engineering, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences) and includes a $1,000 prize and a commemorative gift.
Yuxin Chen, a faculty member since 2017, studies the mathematical foundations of data science, optimization, high-dimensional statistics, statistical learning, information theory, and their applications to medical imaging and computational biology. Students said they appreciated Chen’s thorough explanations of complex materials, as well as his accessibility and constructive feedback on their work. “Even if he is busy, he is always willing to discuss ideas or proof details with me for hours, which is always fruitful,” said an advisee. Chen also serves as an exceptional role model. “Perhaps the most important thing I learned from him is not about the algorithms and proofs, but the philosophy of the academic life,” said a student. “From him, I see what the life of an enthusiastic and self-disciplined scholar would be.” Another advisee said, “Yuxin is the one that helps me maximize my potential as a scholar, which in my opinion is the defining characteristic of an exceptional adviser.”
Ileana Cristea joined the Princeton faculty in 2008. Her lab focuses on characterizing mechanisms of cellular defense against viruses, as well as mechanisms used by viruses to manipulate these critical cellular processes. “She is one of the most genuine, optimistic and supportive people I know — fully committed to the success of her students and laboratory members in their quest to develop as professionals, scholars and teaching experts in the sciences field,” said a student. Cristea is known for supporting emerging scholars even outside her lab and subfield. “She will selflessly give up her precious time to ensure that her students and students in other labs are thriving professionally and mentally,” said another student. “I am extremely grateful to have her in my department.” Cristea also continues championing mentees after they graduate. “Ileana is still invested in my career, and I talk to her all the time for advice for grants, publications and how to handle transitioning into my new assistant professor position,” said a former student. “She is always looking out for opportunities to help me advance my career.”
Brandon Stewart joined the Princeton faculty in 2015. He is also affiliated with the Department of Politics and the Office of Population Research. Stewart develops new quantitative statistical methods for applications across the social sciences. Students commended Stewart for his inclusiveness and commitment to working with all students through challenging problems and courses. “Brandon emphasizes that being good at quantitative methods is less about innate brilliance and more about a willingness to work through difficult problems and commit oneself to continually learning,” said one student. Said another, “Without Brandon’s encouragement and support, I would know far less about statistics and be far less confident in my quantitative methods skills.” His mentees noted his extraordinary generosity with his time and his steady hand in guiding them toward their goals. “Feeling that someone was invested in me staying in academia and willing to help me achieve that goal was incredibly helpful during the times of self-doubt and imposter syndrome that all graduate students face,” said an advisee. “It is not an overstatement to say that without Brandon’s mentorship, I would have likely abandoned my long-term dream of staying in academia.”
Judith Weisenfeld, a Princeton faculty member since 2007, researches American religious history, with an emphasis on 20th-century African American religious history; religion, race and gender; and religion in American film and popular culture. “From what I have experienced and observed, Professor Weisenfeld’s investment in her students’ work goes far beyond what is obligatory and even beyond what many students hope for,” said a student. Nominators commented on Weisenfeld’s collegiality and mentorship of a broad range of graduate students. “I have heard students whose work takes place far beyond the purview of her (and my) subfield and even department offer tales of her extending advice or a listening ear at felicitous moments on matters ranging from archival research to maintaining one’s well-being as a graduate student in the face of personal and systemic hurdles,” said a Ph.D. candidate. A former student remarked, “In the classroom, Professor Weisenfeld expressed respect for every student, and somehow made all of our contributions relevant and valuable.” Said another student, “At moments when I feel overwhelmed by the complexities of my research, she patiently encourages me to think aloud, and offers insightful and challenging questions that reliably help me to see the forest through the trees. I can always depend on her to listen carefully to my concerns and respond in a manner that allows me to devise my own best solutions.”