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Graduate Education: The Provost's Award for Distinguished Ph.D. Teaching and Mentoring

    Peter Conn, Deputy Provost
  Abba Krieger, Professor of Statistics

Steven Curran Amos Smith

Excellence in Ph.D. education is the hallmark of a great university. That excellence, in turn, depends upon the skill and commitment of faculty mentors. In recognition of that key relationship, the Provost has established a new university-wide teaching award, designed specifically to honor faculty who show special distinction as mentors to Ph.D. students.

This year's selection committee, drawn from among past recipients of the Lindback Award, was chaired by Abba Krieger, professor and chair of Statistics (Wharton).  The other members were: Professor James Eberwine (School of Medicine), Professor Robert Engs (School of Arts and Sciences), Professor Susan Gennaro (School of Nursing), Professor Joan Goodman (Graduate School of Education), and Professor Jan Van der Spiegel (School of Engineering and Applied Science).

The committee reviewed more than two dozen nominations. Candidates were evaluated on the basis of letters of recommendation from past and present graduate students, from other university colleagues, and from the wider research community. Among the qualities considered were distinguished research, success in collaborating on doctoral committees and graduate groups, the ability to attract outstanding doctoral students, and a record of successful doctoral placements.

This year's winners are:

Dr. Stuart Curran, Vartan Gregorian Professor of English

Dr. Amos B. Smith III, Rhodes-Thompson Professor of Chemistry

Excerpts from the letters in support of the awardees provide a glimpse into the qualities that make for outstanding mentoring. 

David Wallace, department chair in English, writes, "In surveying the great mass of responses from current and former students, four key qualities of Stuart's mentorship come to the fore: brilliance, precision, accessibility, and compassion." Author and editor of ten books, Stuart has been dissertation advisor to 27 doctoral students during his time at Penn. One writes, "Professor Curran's former students are consistently among the most influential members of our field (British Romanticism); for this reason, the best departments are always eager to interview his students, and simply put, they get jobs." 

Yet another former student writes: "Stuart's attentiveness to his students does not end with the close of their graduate careers. In the 22 years I have been teaching, Stuart has been unfailingly supportive, generous of his time, advice, invitations to panels, and solicitations for essays and reviews." Another writes, "No one who is not a member of my family has ever lavished on me the kind of care, attention, and dedication that I found as his student, nor has anyone ever challenged me as much."

Chemistry chairman, Larry Sneddon writes, "Amos led the Department of Chemistry as it designed and developed new facilities for the next generation of faculty. The practice of synthetic chemistry is a real challenge today. Success depends on resources, quality students, careful leadership and mentoring. Here Amos has truly excelled. Amos leads by example. He is one of the most energetic faculty at Penn. He works hard and has a deep commitment to excellence and develops these traits in his students. His influence on the development of his students doesn't stop with the award of the Ph.D.; rather, it continues at a new level as his students consider the directions of their own careers. Amos is supportive and nurturing throughout the process. In his thirty years at Penn, he has taught over 500 graduate students, supervised over 100 Ph.D. students and another 150 postdoctoral fellows." 

A current Ph.D. student writes, "In the spring of my first year in graduate school, Professor Smith taught a class called 'Advanced Organic Synthesis.' As a result of Professor Smith's guidance, this class was the single most defining moment of my entire first year and set the intellectual tone for years to come! The major focus of this class was the completion of what initially appeared to be an exceptionally overwhelming project far beyond my current intellectual level. Nonetheless, I, along with the rest of my colleagues, successfully completed the project. On the surface the project appeared to be a 'sink or swim' situation. Professor Smith informed us of the project's details but the topic was never discussed again in class until its due date at the end of the semester. No hints or successful strategies were given, but instead the class appeared to continue as if the project did not exist. In reality though, looking back on the entire situation, every lesson that was taught was aimed at teaching us the skills and building up the confidence we needed to tackle the lingering project. The connection between the individual lessons and the project was not initially apparent because Professor Smith focused on teaching us how to think, not just on what facts to remember. He taught us that understanding how and why we got to the right answer was tremendously more important than the correct answer itself. He clearly demonstrated that the unexpected results were just as important as the expected ones and developed our confidence in being able to figure out ways to overcome the problems that we might face in thinking about our project." 

Finally, speaking for a larger group of students, one writes, Amos Smith "supports all of his people, not just the most successful, with everything he is capable of giving."

A reception in honor of Dr. Curran and Dr. Smith will be held on Thursday, May 13th at 6 p.m. in the Amado Recital Room, 110  Irvine. Members of the Penn community are invited to attend.




  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 33, May 11, 2004