Lately, I have been thinking a lot about mentors and mentoring. Several unrelated events have conspired to keep the subject relatively prominent in my thinking stack for some time, and I started drafting this just around Thanksgiving time but I did not make it on time. But it has simmered enough, and I have now decided that it was time to think out loud about it.
Thinking back about my own career, I have benefitted from several mentors.
(And the moment I saw this line written in black and white, I started getting cold feet about actually completing this post, since I realize fully well that, for sure, I will miss someone who had an impact in my professional life. But I decided to take the risk in any case – blog postings can always be edited, right? )
So where does one start when thinking about mentors? I decided to start at graduate school and to keep my focus to all the people whom I encountered in my professional life who have had a role in shaping my evolution as a professional.
Under this definition, I have to start with my PhD thesis supervisor at Georgia Tech, Ashok K. Goel, with whom I worked from 1989 to 1994. Ashok was clearly and visibly excited almost every time he was talking about research. My supervisor helped me cultivate my “taste” for the problems that I would eventually like to tackle and the style of the team I would eventually develop. He had, in his own studies, switched areas and his working style always “felt” a bit different… It was his entusiasm and his distinct style that made me decide to work with him, in spite of being originally attracted to another area of research. Looking back at the long discussions we had both during my one-to-one meetings with him as well as a group, I forget many details but I remember that it was interesting, mentally stimulating, and FUN! He was always helpful and supportive but never easy or patronizing. There were so many times during these years that I felt my mind actually working, the way it was supposed to: more than it had worked before, working through the implications of a position, steps ahead of the current statement.
From the same period, I also have to acknowledge the influence of Janet Kolodner who was the leader of the AI group during my tenure as a graduate student. I have already mentioned some of memories of Janet in a tribute to her for Ada Lovelave day, but, for the sake of completeness of this blog post, I am repeating myself here. She was excited and exciting, opinionated and authoritative, intrigued by big problems like “understanding creativity”, and deeply involved in the real world and everyday life of planning meals and parties. She was funny, successful, and a working mother whose kids were not infrequently around her office, and whose lives and activities frequently peppered her language and thinking. Janet gave me an example of what work-life balance might look like, and if I forget sometimes, it us not her fault:-)
And of course, equally important in my life then, were my fellow graduate students. Were they mentors? I think so, in that, since then, the meaning of the term “research group” has been grounded to what they made our group to be: collegial, personal, diverse, intellectually curious and alive. It was through long chats over coffee and Coke (it was Atlanta after all:-) that I learned about Mahabharata, Jill Sander, and lots in between. I have been trying to foster the same atmosphere in my reserach group and sometimes I see (and hear) glimpses of it, and yet others, it seems that my lab is too quiet and these times, I just hope that I am simply excluded from all the fun:-)
And then, when I was hired at the University of Alberta, I was incredibly lucky to join the Software Engineering group, led by Paul Sorenson. Paul was, at the time, also the department chair and, as such, he was quite busy. Nevertheless, he frequently made himself available, every time I had a question for him. During these early years of my life as an assistant professor, he was a gentle yet thorough and precise critic of papers and proposals; he read my CV just before by application for tenure with a well working red pen; and he guided me through writing my first CRD proposal, on which he was a co-PI, a fact which certainly increased its credibility. But what I will always remember in relation to Paul Sorenson’s style is his discrete manner of intervening in discussions, which, to a less trained eye, would probably look completely derailed. I was one of two discussants once and I remember myself frustrated at the vanity of the conversation; there was no point in having it, I was sure; yet, in his pretty amazing way, Paul made a statement about a minute piece of common ground between us, which I first thought as “terribly naive” and then I realized that it was a genious way to hijack the discussion to a more positive place and thus give us, the “opponents”, some more time to work out a possible future. I have been reflecting on this discussion many times since then, and I have tried a few times to replay Paul’s role, with limited success, I must admit, but I will keep trying. To Paul, I also owe the introduction to many of my current collaborators, and his creativity in “matching” researchers has taught me quite a bit about building and enabling research relations.
There have been many people that I could also mention here but this posting already feels too long, and slightly too personal, so I will close with a big thank you to all these people! They have all enriched my life tremendously and, for that, I am grateful.
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