Outstanding faculty mentors recognized by the Graduate School
April 28, 2021
For the fifth year, the Graduate School has recognized Virginia Tech faculty from across the university’s colleges for their outstanding work mentoring graduate students. These award winners are nominated by graduate students and chosen by their colleges.
Alan Ealy’s current and past graduate students called his mentorship invaluable. “This is now my fourth year working with Dr. Ealy, and I can’t think of anyone who deserves this recognition more than him,” wrote Ph.D. candidate Lydia Wooldridge. “Through him I have had numerous opportunities to co-author and author manuscripts, write grants, mentor undergraduates in a research setting, practice scientific communication, guest lecture in undergraduate courses, and develop my own experiments, to name just a few examples.” Alumna Kathleen Pennington, now an assistant professor at Baylor University College of Medicine, said Ealy’s interest in students lasts beyond graduation. “Alan's mentorship has continued since my Ph.D. completion and leaving his lab in 2010,” wrote Pennington. “He has continued to take an interest in my career development and growth. He has always there to bounce ideas off of or talk through difficult situations and decisions.”
Annie Pearce’s students wrote that she recognizes the importance of balancing work and home life with the demands of graduate education. Maria Sexton, writing on behalf of the Sustainable Facilities & Infrastructure Lab, said Pearce easily works with students across disciplines and graduate programs. “What makes Dr. Pearce stand out from other mentors is her genuine appreciation for advancing knowledge and her willingness to help any student, whether she holds the role of their advisor, professor, or just a friendly face within the department. She has a unique talent for instilling a sense of self-efficacy within her students and makes a sincere effort to prepare her students as successful professionals.” She added that Pearce also models patience with her students. “She understands how difficult life can be for graduate students and makes sure that they have whatever types of support their current situation requires, including structure, leniency, and verbal kicks in the pants.” Alumnus Anurag Mantha echoed Sexton: “Dr. Pearce’s style of mentorship and advising focuses on listening to her students and helping them thrive in whichever path they choose.
Kostas Triantis’s students noted not only his efforts to help them achieve their education goals, they also noted his empathy. Recent graduate Taylan G. Topcu, now at George Washington University, wrote, “Prof. Triantis has a very special skill. He is a true educator. In other words, as the etymologic root of the verb 'educate' implies, he has the rare ability to bring out the true potential of his students.” Current Ph.D. student Saman Mohsenirad wrote that Triantas usually spends a few minutes of the class asking about students’ lives and feelings and making sure they are mentally in good status. Although it may seem a simple issue, it gives students an incredible sense of security and empathy.” Mohsenirad also said he appreciated the collaborative and inclusive nature of Triantas’s research group. Alumna Roma Bhatkoti, Ph.D., now a health statistician for the Centre of Global Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Triantas’ influence continues after graduation. “It would be impossible to count all the ways that Dr. Triantis has helped me in my career and in the pursuit of academic excellence.”
David Brunsma calls mentoring, “my passion, my raison d'être, my daily walk.” His students, past and present, attest to his dedication and care. J. Slade Lellock, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Averett University, wrote, “What truly sets Dr. Brunsma apart from other faculty is his genuine passion for student advising at both the graduate and undergraduate level. … Without Dr. Brunsma’s relentless commitment to my academic success and never-ending support, I would certainly not have achieved a fraction of the academic and professional success that I enjoy today.” Current Ph.D. candidate Inaash Islam described Brunsma’s weekly writing sessions, or write-ins. “In these always-well-attended two-hour slots, graduate students and faculty come together to brainstorm, collaborate, and write. These write-ins are a safe haven for myself and many of my colleagues who face writer’s block, are in desperate need of guidance, or are simply looking to connect with colleagues.” Islam said the sessions continued virtually during the pandemic and “continue to have the same spirit and much-needed collegial atmosphere as before.”
Marc Stern’s students call themselves “the Stern Squad” and are united in their praise for their advisor. Ph.D. candidate Kelley Anderson wrote that while Stern’s research is well known, his excellent mentorship should be highlighted. “Marc is as concerned with ensuring his students produce high-quality, rigorous, and useful research projects as he is with making sure their personal well-being, aspirations, and intellectual curiosities are nurtured,” Anderson said. “He instills competence and confidence in his students, allows them to pursue research interests outside of their thesis or dissertation work, and encourages departmental and collegiate service.” B. Troy Frensley, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, wrote of his mentor, “Marc is a rare combination, as he is someone who is extremely talented, accomplished, and pushes for excellence while simultaneously being humble, authentic, and supportive. I learned a tremendous amount about what kind of educator, researcher, colleague, and mentor I wanted to be by working with him. He always had time for me, always pushed me beyond what I thought was possible, and was a pleasure to work with.”
Webster Santos was praised by alumni and current students for his efforts to assist them on their research and education journey. Sixth-year graduate student R. Justin Grams noted that Santos encourages his students to write for publication as lead authors and works with them to ensure that their work is ethical and meets rigorous standards. Such authorship helps demonstrate that the author is “a major contributor both intellectually and in work performed for the project,” Grams said. “Due to Dr. Santos’s guidance and perseverance, most of his students graduate with three or more first author publications as well as several external presentations, e.g., posters or seminars.” Alumnus David Bryson, now a senior scientist at Beam Therapeutics, said of Santos, “In the five years that Webster guided me toward earning my Ph.D., he was a role model that proved to be one of the most consequential mentors I’ve had in my career of scientific research. This spring will mark the ninth year since I earned my doctorate from Virginia Tech, but Webster’s mentorship has remained an indelible influence on the standards to which I hold myself and those that I now mentor and manage.”
Past and current students who Linda Dahlgren has advised said her guidance has been critical to their success, and they note her support, advice, and encouragement during their research. Anne Nichols, now a postdoc researcher at the University of Rochester, said Nichols has high expectations, but is always available to help students as they work toward their degrees. “She allowed me to explore my interests by designing my own experiments, helped me find funding where appropriate, and helped me synthesize complex ideas through ongoing thoughtful discussions and guidance,” Nichols wrote. “These skills have proven to be invaluable in my postdoctoral work and as I begin to establish my own independent research program. As I have seen some of my colleagues struggle with this transition from student to independent researcher at the postdoctoral level, I am exceedingly grateful to Linda that she helped to develop these skills in me early in my scientific career.” Current Ph.D. student Sarah Khatibzadeh, who completed a D.V.M. and a master’s degree with Dahlgren as advisor, agreed. “Regardless of the time or the day, Dr. Dahlgren will selflessly spend hours of one-on-one time with her mentees in discussing protocols, reviewing data, troubleshooting, and perfecting manuscripts and grant proposals,” Khatibzadeh wrote. “She deeply cares about every student and always goes the extra mile to ensure they succeed, regardless of their experience level or research interests. Her mentorship style also strikes a perfect balance between directly providing her experienced insight and asking the tough questions that stimulate her mentees to grow as scientists.”