How to be an engineer and influence people

ASU Engineering students supported by strong faculty mentors

July 30, 2021

Assistant Professor Rebecca Muenich, Professor Andréa Richa and Assistant Professor Sydney Schaefer were recognized by the ASU Faculty Women’s Association for their outstanding mentorship. Graphic created by Erika Gronek/ASU

The role of a teacher is to share knowledge through instruction, typically through lessons, discussion and by providing examples. But a mentor’s role, while less formal, is just as important. It features the sharing of perspectives and experiences with more personal value.

Mentors strive to help their mentees develop into peers by imparting wisdom on not just how to grow in their respective field, but how to explore the impact they can have. The delicate balance creates a space for mentees to hone their own skills and learn from the experiences of their mentors.

At Arizona State University, the ASU Faculty Women’s Association has advocated for increasing the status and participation of women since 1954. The volunteer organization annually recognizes faculty members who are great leaders with the FWA Awards Program.

Outstanding Faculty Mentors

This year, three faculty members from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU were awarded the FWA Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award for their exceptional mentorship to students or to other faculty members. Those winners are Rebecca Muenich, an assistant professor of civil, environmental and sustainable engineering, Andréa Richa, professor of computer science, and Sydney Schaefer, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

Schaefer says she has learned too many things to list from her own mentors.

“I learned that anyone can be a mentor, not just your professor or your advisor,” she says. “A mentor can be a mentor for a long time, well beyond one’s time at their institution. I continue to rely on my mentors for career advice, or whenever I need to make decisions that I don’t yet feel equipped to make. My mentors have been generous and unselfish with me, and I strive to do the same.”

Schaefer’s role as a mentor to one prospective ASU student started in 2016, while Schaefer herself was still transitioning to ASU from her appointments at Utah State University and the University of Utah.

“My philosophy is to treat mentorship as a collaboration with my students. We each bring unique experiences and skills to the table. I also generally try to be flexible in my methods and approaches to mentorship so that I can tailor to the needs of students with different experiences, interests and goals.”

— Rebecca Muenich, Assistant Professor of Civil, environmental and sustainable engineering

That student, Jennapher Lingo VanGilder, who is currently pursuing a biomedical engineering doctoral degree, was apprehensive about leaving her full-time position as a motion analysis engineer at Phoenix Children’s Hospital to begin her graduate studies.

“I contacted Dr. Schaefer to discuss our related research interests,” Lingo VanGilder says. “Before I officially joined her laboratory full time, Dr. Schaefer sponsored a day trip to her previous institution in Salt Lake City so I could receive direct training from one of our collaborators, and she encouraged me to interview her previous students to ensure our working relationship would be a good fit.”

While there, those students shared their experiences of overwhelming support from Schaefer, which significantly factored into Lingo VanGilder’s decision to start her graduate career.

“Dr. Schaefer’s commitment to mentorship has profoundly enhanced my ability to successfully navigate a career in academia by supporting my professional growth and development as a scientist,” Lingo VanGilder says. “I have two young children and am working toward my doctorate in biomedical engineering because of not only her academic guidance, but also her endless compassion, understanding and support, which have been absolutely critical to my retention in ASU’s graduate program. Dr. Schaefer has been more than an academic advisor to me; she’s been a big sister whom I model in both my professional and personal life.”

Schaefer benefited from having great mentors herself and says that she understands the value of what good mentorship can do for a person.

“Being a good mentor to my students is about paying it forward, and showing gratitude for my own mentors,” Schaefer says. “I also care about the future of my academic and research fields, and I want to support and advocate for future professors and researchers.”

Richa says that she strives to educate the full spectrum of students.

“In my lab, there are students from local Tempe high schools to PhD students and domestic and international students,” says Richa. “I have nurtured a diverse and inclusive culture in my lab, with roughly twice the average rate of female students in computer science and several students from other underrepresented groups. Moreover, I led several efforts at ASU to improve the retention of underrepresented students in STEM.”

Those efforts do not go unnoticed by her students.

“Andréa has worked hard to create inclusive collaborations and lab culture that model women in STEM leadership and accessible opportunities for those from underrepresented backgrounds,” says Joshua Daymude, one of her doctoral students. “Her graduate students have been roughly 35% female, compared to the average 18%, and she actively recruits students at all levels from underrepresented student groups.”

For Muenich, another 2021 Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awardee, mentors have been especially helpful for learning more about the “unwritten rules” in academia.

“Most of what I know about mentoring came from a previous mentor,” Muenich says. “Specifically, I can think of the fact that there will always be work to do, so do what you need to take time for yourselfSay ‘no’ when you need to and have the life you want outside of work.”

Muenich says that she benefited from having excellent mentors throughout her career as well and she wants to do what she can to give back.

“The students are the future,” Muenich says. “There is only so much that I can get done in a lifetime of work, but if I can contribute to helping the next generation push scientific advances forward, my impact will be far greater.” ​

“My mentoring philosophy centers around advocacy. I aim to work with trainees to better position them relative to their career goals, such that they are further along their career trajectory at the end of their time in my lab than when they started. I always have an initial conversation with trainees about what they want to do long-term, and then work backwards to try and find opportunities within my lab that align with their goals. I then continue these career conversations throughout their time in my lab, and I try to advocate for them whenever possible. It’s about getting trainees to where they want to go.”

— Sydney Schaefer, Assistant Professor of Biomedical engineering

Distinguished graduate student achievement

As part of the FWA Awards Program, the association also honored Lingo VanGilder and Lily Baye-Wallace, a robotics and autonomous systems master’s degree student, with the FWA Distinguished Graduate Student Achievement Award.

Lingo VanGilder, who graduated from ASU with a master’s degree in biomedical engineering under the guidance of Associate Professor Stephen Helms Tillery in 2013, has her current research focused on identifying neuroimaging and neuropsychological clinical predictors of motor learning. The work is meant to advance our understanding of motor rehabilitation treatment response in older adults.

Schaefer says that Lingo VanGilder has earned all of the success she has achieved as a student.

“My role as Jennapher’s mentor has been to simply advocate for her and help her gain and hone the necessary skills and experiences she needs to get to the next stage of her career,” Schaefer says. “She has worked very hard and very strategically, and has adopted and practiced a growth mindset that has allowed her to advance tremendously and build confidence.”

Baye-Wallace is currently a member of the Neuromuscular Control and Human Robotics Lab working with Hyunglae Lee, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. In the lab, she is developing a robotic hip exosuit for the rehabilitation of neurologically impaired gait patterns.

Outside the lab, Baye-Wallace is also an assistant for multiple sections of the Fulton Schools FSE 100 class and is also a member of ASU’s section of the Society of Women Engineers.

“I am in charge of travel arrangements for our section to attend the Society of Women Engineers International Conference in Indianapolis this fall,” Baye-Wallace says. “In addition, I continue to maintain and build connections with corporations for the professional development and recruitment of our membership.”

Baye-Wallace’s work to help Fulton Schools students travel and network with other members of the Society of Women Engineers will help create opportunities for mentoring and mentorship worldwide.

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