Dr. Richard A. Yost
Colonel Allen R. and Margaret G. Crow Professor
Department of Chemistry
2015-2016 UF Doctorial Mentoring Award Winner
I am deeply honored to have been nominated by my past PhD students for the 2015-2016 Doctoral Dissertation Advisor/Mentoring Award. One of the most rewarding aspects of my life has been to mentor young student/scientists through their graduate studies and on to success after the PhD; clearly, it’s one of the best and most satisfying jobs in the world. Even more rewarding is this recognition by my students.
During the 36 years I have served on the faculty of the UF Chemistry Department, I’ve been privileged to supervise the research of 108 graduate students. I graduated my 75th PhD this summer, in addition to 10 MS graduates. I have another 14 students in my group currently working towards their PhDs. Such a large group is both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s a challenge to set aside enough time for each student individually, and to stay on top of 15 different projects. But it’s also an opportunity to have a large supportive “family” working together, and to foster mentoring opportunities amongst the graduate students, with the senior students helping mentor the junior ones (and the junior ones helping mentor undergraduates and high school students). My group topped out at 25 graduate students two decades ago; my concern that I have enough time to work with each student personally, and stay up-to-date on what each one is doing, convinced me to limit the group to 3 new PhD students each year (for a steady state of 12-15). I’ve turned away more students than I’ve accepted since I made that decision, but I’m convinced that the quality of the students’ graduate experience has more than made up for that. Even while serving on the UF Board of Trustees and the Florida Board of Governors, I have maintained my focus on mentoring graduate students. I have also served for 15 years as Head of the UF Analytical Chemistry Division, and in that role I advise and mentor an even larger number of our graduate students
Graduates of my research group are well trained, highly sought after, and remarkably successful. Measures of that include the fact that 65 out of my 75 PhD graduates have gone directly to permanent positions (including faculty positions) without postdocing; furthermore, 7 of those 75 have risen to department chair, dean, or other academic administrative positions, and 8 have risen to president or CEO positions. I am proud of all the graduates of my group, whether they’ve found success in academics, government, or industry, or as patent attorneys or dancers at the Metropolitan Opera. Along the way, my graduate students (and I) have published over 175 peer-reviewed articles, received 15 patents, and presented countless plenary and invited lectures in the US and overseas. Instruments developed by the students in my research group have revolutionized the field of analytical mass spectrometry, and have led to commercial instrument sales now totaling well over $1Billion annually. In addition to mentoring over a hundred graduate students, I have taught over a thousand graduate students in three graduate courses I developed here at UF, in addition to thousands more in undergraduate courses. Ah, but mentoring PhD students, that’s what makes me jump out of bed in the morning and race to UF!
Three themes seem to reflect best my “Mentoring Style”:
1. Focus on students – Perhaps that’s obvious (this is a university, after all), but it’s not clear to me that our colleagues always remember that focus. For 36 years, I have focused on the students - lifting them up, empowering them, enabling them. In my group, a student’s research project is driven by scholarship (science), not by my funding. I strive to identify the unique strengths that each student possesses, and build on those, while working to help him or her develop those skills needed to be independent PhD scientists upon graduation. My goal is to develop students’ independence and to empower them to be in “intellectual control” of their own research.
2. It’s a family – In my view, the mentoring relationship between a PhD advisor and the students is a lifelong professional and personal bond; I stay connected with my students (my “family”) long after they have defended their PhDs and moved on. That mentoring (parenting?) role – professional and personal, career decisions and family celebrations – continues for life, My research group holds an annual group reunion dinner; last spring, for instance, 50 past and current students (and I) spent an evening together in St. Louis. My current graduate students get to meet the PhD graduates who wrote that seminal paper or built that instrument upon which they rely. My past students stay connected by meeting the young scientists who have followed in their footsteps (and often, the new faces they will hire after they finish their PhD degrees). That’s a remarkable family! A family that I’m proud to serve as mentor (and Dad).
3. Be creative – Each student is different, with special skills and special needs to be successful. A key dynamic is the tremendous demand for PhDs from my group. Most of my PhDs don’t have a postdoctoral experience, and therefore need to develop maturity and career skills during their PhD studies. Over a third of my PhD students go on “sabbatical” during their graduate career, for periods of a few weeks to several months, where they can experience science in other labs and at other institutions. Most of my students attend at least one scientific conference annually, often starting in their first year – that’s a big investment of grant travel funds for such a large research group, but in my opinion, it’s a critical part of the education of a young scientist.
There are many other roles that every good mentor fulfills – academic advisor, advocate, sympathetic listener, caring critic, coauthor and copyeditor. In my view, however, the primary concept for a faculty member to keep in mind is that the most important member of the research group is the student! My greatest legacy as a professor is and will be the students whom I have mentored and their successes. The papers we have published, the talks we have presented, and the research funding we have garnered are in many ways transient, but have been invaluable tools for educating the next generation of scientists.
I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to professors who mentored me in my career: Mike Burke during my undergraduate studies at Arizona, who demonstrated a personal focus on each student, even a lowly freshman; Chris Enke during my graduate studies at Michigan State, who embraced each student’s ideas and creativity; and Jim Winefordner here at UF (one of the first recipients of this award), who demonstrated the remarkable success possible when one focuses on the student. A wise man once said that you are doomed to be like your parents. My corollary is that you are doomed to be like your PhD mentor. I certainly see that in my own life and career. I tell our graduate students that they can’t choose their parents, but they can choose their PhD mentor, and should carefully consider the type of mentor they’d like to be before selecting a research group!
We have remarkable students at UF, both undergraduate and graduate. I have been blessed with the opportunity to guide many outstanding young scientists (and outstanding young people) so far in my career here. I am honored to be considered for this mentoring award.