Dr. Mark T. Brown
UF Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences
2005-2006 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
I am deeply honored to have been nominated by my students for the 2005-2006 Doctoral Dissertation Advising/Mentoring Award. It goes without saying that few things in my life have been more satisfying than this sincere expression of appreciation. Over the years, as my students have completed their degrees and commenced their careers, I have felt a fulfillment that is not unlike the fulfillment that an artist or sculptor must feel as he/she completes a fine work of art. It is done, and it is right. Yet, the fulfillment that comes from a former student expressing his/her appreciation for what I have done for them goes far beyond the satisfaction of completing a job; it provides a wonderful backdrop to the years and students yet to come.
Graduate education is unique in that it develops a bond between a faculty member and his students and a life-long contract for continued assistance and mentorship. Mentoring does not end when my students graduate; in many respects, it is just beginning. I believe that the role of a mentor/advisor is far more than providing direction for research; it is a slow, steady, sustained effort to provide an environment that allows each student to identify their unique capabilities as scientists/engineers — but more importantly an environment that allows them to discover who they are, and where they are going. In essence, I see my role as not only finding the scientist/engineer within the person, but helping to find and develop the person within the student.
I was fortunate to have studied under H.T. Odum and to have worked with him for nearly 25 years. During this time I observed his mentoring and care for each student, and his ability to bring out the best in each by providing a rich and fertile atmosphere for each student’s creativity to find a place to grow. I learned well his style and his ability to identify the unique capabilities of each student — seeing talent often before the students saw it themselves. As I embarked on my own career as teacher/mentor, I emulated all that I had learned, incorporating the very best of his genius as it related to the care of his students. The following are a few of the attitudes and approaches that I learned and are an important part of my mentoring style.
Mentor as Advocate
Advisors are crucial as advocates. My advocacy starts the day a student enters my research group. I begin by providing funding support, help in looking for other sources of funding and guiding each student in writing proposals. I continue advocating for them as they develop their research, supporting their hard work and ensuring they publish, attend conferences in their field and successfully defend their dissertations. Advocacy does not end when they graduate, as advocacy includes helping students locate potential employment opportunities as well as writing letters of reference. And finally long after graduation, I want to make sure they advance in their careers by keeping in touch and supporting where and when I can.
Mentor as Coach
Coaching provides empowerment and support in a wide variety of ways. I see my job as empowering students to seek change, to be focused and to proceed with their research (and life) with vigor. As a coach I help each student to first identify their goals, and then to map our a strategy to achieve them. As each student begins his or her graduate career with me, I help to define both their short term and long term goals; then, to support them by mapping out a strategy; and finally, helping them to stay on track. Coaching also provides the structured opportunity for each student to reflect and make course corrections. Finally, I believe that my main function as a coach is to help my students to balance work, family and social demands.
Mentor as Friend and Colleague
Friendships are a natural outgrowth of most long-term relationships, and my students gradually become my colleagues. Over the years of our relationship I strive, as their mentor, to maintain a degree of objectivity in giving fair grades and evaluations, but at the same time to treat them as research colleagues, for I feel that it is essential that I treat them with the respect I show to my colleagues, so they will develop the confidence and work habits of a professional that will be necessary in their first job. In the end, having my students succeed and becoming a friend and colleague is most important and one of my great joys.
Mentor as Listener
A great deal of my time is spent listening — listening to students present their proposals, their research findings and eventually their dissertations. Beyond this “professional listening”, I believe a good mentor must also hear at other levels and with other ears. As mentor, I feel that I must be aware of each student’s position and particular challenges without first interpreting or judging, and that it is important to develop a feeling of empathy for each student’s circumstances. In this way we can develop clear communication and a feeling of mutual trust.
Mentor as Manager
Our lab is organized so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing. We meet every week in “round-table” and each student is asked to bring something new — a graph, a table, a figure from their research, around which we discuss their work. These discussions are lengthy, and probably lengthier than would be the case if I were to meet with each student individually; but they are an important part of our building a sense of team spirit and camaraderie over multiple years and cohorts of students.
Graduate Students as Mentors
Whenever possible, I support my students in developing their teaching and management skills. I encourage their participation in hiring, training and supervising lab and field assistants. I advocate for them in developing teaching opportunities in our department. I believe that they need to teach so that they fully understand what it is they are doing, for it has become very clear to me that it is through teaching that we understand. Many of my doctoral students go on to careers in academia, and without teaching experience, they would not have all the “equipment” necessary to succeed.
As a parent, it became obvious to me that my children learned more from being at my side and observing me in action than they did from the times I tried to instruct them. I believe that is how we learn life’s lessons, and ultimately how we teach the next generation. I think we learn more by doing and observing than from books or formal instruction. My approach to mentoring incorporates the belief that the best teaching is through action, contact and example. The best I can do is to inspire my students, to help light a fire in their bellies and to provide a context for developing an awareness of who and where they are. I believe that part of this awareness is self-awareness and the necessity to reflect on where they are going. I have carried this belief into my lab and into my relationship with my students as we work (and play) side by side. I am convinced they learn most by observing me and their fellow students, and that my main job is to ensure we have the atmosphere in which that can take place.