Academics → Mentoring Awards

Dr. James W. Jones
Distinguished Professor
UF Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering
2004-2005 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

My mentoring philosophy is guided by (1) the fact that our graduates will function in an increasingly complex world in which interdisciplinary research and cooperation is essential for advancing science and its application to societal problems, and (2) a belief that graduate students attending the University of Florida will become leading scientists in the future, and that they both expect and deserve the best instruction and graduate education experience available worldwide. It is highly important that our graduates understand the social and ecological context within which their work is done. They need to learn how to work in teams on research aimed at understanding and managing natural resources, considering the complex biological, ecological, physical, and social interactions that influence them. Graduates must be able to use a systems approach in order to deal with these complexities, in order to interact with people with different scientific backgrounds, and in order to develop sustainable natural resource management systems that meet goals of society. Thus, our graduate students need to achieve a deep understanding of their chosen field of engineering, including mathematics and systems analysis methodologies, and they need to understand how to work with other scientists in interdisciplinary research. I adhere to this philosophy as I supervise my own graduate students and as I serve on committees of students from a number of different departments.

My goal for my own graduate students is that they master fundamentals of modeling biological and agricultural systems and methods for applying those models. My goal for students who are in other departments is for them to gain an interest in and an understanding of methods for simulation and analysis of agricultural and biological systems. These biophysical models are now essential in agricultural and natural resource systems analysis and are used in interdisciplinary research worldwide. In classroom instruction, students learn how to conceptualize agricultural and biological systems as hierarchical components interacting with each other through biophysical processes, and they learn fundamental concepts and methods for modeling and simulating these systems. Assignments allow them to gain confidence individually in their mastery of concepts and techniques to work in teams to integrate knowledge from more than one discipline. This experience helps them appreciate the value of this approach in interdisciplinary research and problem solving and to understand some of the practical issues one faces when applying these concepts to real problems.

One characteristic of my mentoring approach is to guide students toward innovative topics and encourage creativity by helping them design dissertations with a balance between risky and non-risky research initiatives. An example of this is my encouragement of a recent PhD graduate, Dr. Carlos Messina, to conduct research to test the hypothesis that mathematical models of crop growth could be parameterized using DNA to quantify how specific soybean varieties would develop. This research was successful; Dr. Messina is the first person in the world to demonstrate that crop development can be predicted across many environments with a crop model in which DNA information from soybean seed is used to parameterize development traits.

Graduate students should know the leaders in their field of research. Study of the literature remains a most effective way for them to gain an appreciation of the history of research in their area as well as current work and associated methodologies. In addition, I have found that graduate students who have personal contacts with world-class experts gain considerable insight in what has been done, why it was done, and what the new frontiers of research are. Thus in advising graduate students, I create opportunities for them to travel internationally, to meet leading scientists worldwide, and to present their own work in such settings. Those interactions inspire students, increase their enthusiasm and confidence in themselves, and enhance their abilities to contribute to science. And through these interactions, they gain useful contacts as they enter the scientific community. Also, I provide experiences for my PhD students to perform some of their research in other states or countries to broaden their experience from a scientific perspective. This allows them to interact with leading scientists elsewhere and be exposed to different cultures. Examples of such opportunities are current or former students who performed research in Israel, Mali, Ghana, Iowa, Georgia, Michigan, and Colombia. In some cases, leading scientists from other universities have served on committees of my students, including prominent scientists from Michigan, Iowa, Georgia, and the Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands. Finally, I strongly encourage professional development of my students by supporting their travel to professional meetings and strongly encouraging them to publish their work during their graduate program.

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