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Graduate students honor Cowen, Ndulo and Smart for excellence in mentoring

Jason Koski/University Photography
At center, Edwin "Todd" Cowen, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, talks with graduate students and colleagues after winning an award for his outstanding mentoring.

Jason Koski/University Photography
Christine Smart, associate professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology, chats with Dean of the University Faculty Bill Fry.

University Photography file photo
Muna Ndulo, professor of law, in class.

For the first time in Cornell's history, graduate students have created an award to honor the people who have the greatest impact on their academic careers: faculty mentors.

The Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) ushered in the historic moment May 8 at the A.D. White House with a ceremony for the three recipients of the first annual Awards for Excellence in the Teaching, Advising and Mentoring of Graduate and Professional Students. Cornell's Graduate School and administration supported the event.

The winners are Edwin "Todd" Cowen, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Muna Ndulo, professor of law and director of Cornell's Institute for African Development; and Christine Smart, associate professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology.

"The quality of graduate students' relationships with their advisers is probably the primary factor in their success, or failure, in graduate school," said Nicole Baran, GPSA executive vice president and a Ph.D. candidate in the field of psychology. "The goals of the awards … were to articulate what we value in our own training, to increase positive and proactive dialogue about the important role that faculty play in graduate and professional student education, as well as to express gratitude to Cornell's many exceptional mentors and teachers," Baran said.

The GPSA read more than 100 pages of nomination letters from graduate and professional students, Baran said. The winners were chosen based on advising, mentoring, emphasis on graduate students' professional development, collegiality, leadership, responsiveness, teaching and pedagogy development.

Cowen's mentoring abilities makes him seem like a superhero, said Parag Mahanti, a Ph.D. candidate in the field of chemistry and chemical biology. "Reading the nomination letters supporting him, one gets an idea that he comes straight from the pages of a comic book," he quipped.

For example Cowen once analyzed an advisee's data to verify her results before she presented them at a conference. Cowen also was lauded for his outreach and education related to the health of Cayuga Lake, including the treatment of invasive aquatic plants. A "brilliant experimentalist," Cowen's "humanness and willingness to admit his own mistakes makes his students all the more comfortable with their shortcomings," Mahanti said. "… May you never find your Kryptonite."

Ndulo was praised as a role model who motivates his students to believe that they can make a positive impact on the world with their effort and talent, Baran said. Many nomination letters said he is a dedicated teacher and mentor despite the many demands on his time. One student wrote: "I had learned from some other star faculty on campus that folks so accomplished have little time for real engagement with students. It was such a tremendous delight to discover that Professor Ndulo is actually one of the most engaging and available professors."

Ndulo, who was lecturing in Zambia, was unable to attend the ceremony; Stewart J. Schwab, the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Law School, accepted the award on his behalf.

Smart was cited especially for the specialized attention she gives students, said Evan Cortens, GPSA president and a Ph.D. candidate in the field of musicology. She places a high priority on preparing each student for his or her desired career, he said. One student wrote: "During one of my first meetings with Dr. Smart, she asked me what do I want, what skills do I need to improve, what are my career goals. She does her best to help me meet all my goals."

Accepting the award, Smart said: "Interacting with students is perhaps the finest and most enjoyable thing that we get to do as faculty members. And on those days that research is particularly difficult, I always find my inspiration comes from my students."


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