'A great opportunity, a great responsibility'

Killam award winner reflects on the science (and art) of mentoring

Robert B. Desjardins - 16 October 2019

When asked why computing science professor Eleni Stroulia is such an inspiring mentor, her graduate students share a common refrain.

In addition to training them as scientists, they say, she makes them feel valued -- taking the time to understand their interests, share advice generously, and build a sense of community in the lab.

"I want them to want to talk with me," says Stroulia, the winner of the 2019 Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring. "And not only about the science, although that is a primary objective. I also want to help them figure out what kind of career and what sorts of activities they would be most happy doing."

The opportunity to have such conversations, she says, is a great privilege for supervisors. It also carries a heavy responsibility.

"We lead these young people when they are still in their formative years. We spend a lot of time together, and we have the chance to be scientifically productive and smart. But I also hope that I'm contributing in some way to their leading a happy and productive life."

We sat down this month to discuss Stroulia's approach to mentoring. The following is edited for length and clarity.

What are the most important skills and knowledge that you hope students will gain during their time with you?

First, they should be able to know what good science is. Any thesis or paper will have a key innovation and a lot of supporting work. Recognizing the difference between them is the most important thing. The second is communication. Whatever bit of work you're doing, you should be able to explain it, persuading people with different opinions and backgrounds that this a good idea.

Finally, I want students to have some awareness of what it is that they're good at. For instance, when they write their thesis, students may feel more comfortable making a purely theoretical contribution, or doing an empirical study with users. They will learn if they like to write or not, if they like to talk or not. Learning about this is essential for figuring out what you'll do with the rest of your career.

What is the key to helping students gain these skills?

I think my job is to make sure that they experience everything. If someone doesn't want to make a presentation, I'll make them make a presentation. If someone doesn't want to write - that's a difficult one, but I'll try to help them write. So they have to do everything here, and that's the whole point: this is a safe environment. A terrible presentation isn't going to cost you anything here. My job is to make sure they experience as many career activities as possible to become better at them and figure out what they enjoy.

How do you begin to tackle this process with a new graduate student?

Early on, I try to be straightforward about my expectations. This is even reflected in how I talk: I don't beat around the bush. If I don't like something I will say so; I won't try to sugarcoat it too much. I prefer to show that my style is straightforward early on, when there is no issue, and so no judgment. And I make it clear that, as a supervisor, I make deadlines and I have expectations. Without them, people don't have milestones to strive towards.

And you see it as your responsibility to develop a personal relationship as well as cultivating those scientific skills.

Absolutely. We're working very closely together, we're writing together, we're debating about the right way of saying things. This is a very personal activity; I don't think you can avoid being involved. Of course, we have our boundaries and our roles and our duties, but it feels easier to me when there is more to us than just I am the teacher, you are the student. I find that most people, after all this time together, tend to open up.

How do you build that ongoing relationship?

Well, for instance, we have dinners together as a group. Everybody likes to eat - it's a relaxed environment, and to be able to bring in other life elements, families and significant others, is good. Children's pictures are always a favorite of mine. I love babies. Two of my students have one year olds, and another just got a baby, so I always make sure to ask for pictures.

Do you also try to help your students mentor each other?

Yes. In fact, much of the mentoring happens without me present. I have the privilege of saying I'll be straightforward, but I'm guessing some of the students do not feel they have the privilege of being as straightforward as they would like with me. So they gain a lot by talking with other people who have gone through similar experiences.

How do you organize those opportunities for students?

We are very lucky to have this lab, which has several rooms. We organize the rooms in a way that brings people with similar interests into the same space. People find what they have in common; sometimes it's their nationality or their language. Sometimes it's the project they're working on; there are many different theses on the same project. Sometimes it is sports; there was a soccer subgroup at one time. Or sometimes it's simply that they came in the same cohort.

What kind of support do they give each other?

They may read each other's papers, or help with each other's presentations. We had two master's students who just graduated, and they presented their theses to each other a couple of times. And as people get to know each other more, they give advice on events in the graduate life that they have gone through - the candidacy defense, the seminar to the group, getting an internship. Students are always flattered to help, and everybody likes to feel useful to other people.

How do you go about advising students who encounter setbacks in their programs?

One point where things often go bad is the first paper rejection. When that happens I sometimes remind students that the reason they're doing a program, especially a PhD, is primarily because they have a bug in their head and they want this piece of knowledge. Because it's not for the money, it's not for the honour - these are all part of it, but they are not enough to sustain you through the difficulty of rejection after rejection. This kind of persistence comes mostly from a very strong belief that this is what you're supposed to be doing.

As a co-author on papers with students, how do you help them deal with those rejections?

What are the phases of grief? [Laughs.] The first answer, and you can't help giving it initially, is that the reviewers did not understand the paper. The second answer is that you are serious about reading their comments. Your job is trying to make sense of their critique, because if there's anything the reviewers didn't get, it's your fault.

Do you have a strategy for engaging with the reviewers' comments?

I ask the students to go through reviewers' comments and make a list of to-dos out of them. Then we have a chat, and I try to contribute more if there is something that was missed. Next we formulate a response to the reviewers before we go and fix it. We pretend that this is going to be our final response, and it may occur to us that in order to give it, we have to conduct another experiment and get some more numbers to support our claim. And sometimes you realize that you haven't made a good point overall; the paper was bad, ill-structured, not strong enough - and you use it as the springboard for the next piece of work.

I saved the best questions for last. What moments do you find most rewarding in your work as a supervisor?

I love convocations! The ceremony is just a big sentinel in both the student's and the supervisor's lives: before, we have been striving towards a big goal; tomorrow the graduate will start pursuing their new career with new challenges and opportunities and stressors and the supervisor will go to their regular day working with all the other students. But on the day of the convocation, we can just celebrate the fact that together we reached the milestone. I am especially moved when I meet families, parents and partners and children all of whom have been looking forward to this day and are proud for being there with their graduate.

And what does it mean to you to receive the Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring?

I find working with people in general and students in particular terribly rewarding. The feedback that my colleagues and students think that I do a good job at being a mentor is just the icing on the cake!

Eleni Stroulia is Professor of Computing Science in the Faculty of Science. Her 2019 Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring was made possible by the Killam Trusts, which are among Canada's largest and most prestigious endowments for scholarly activities. For more on the important role of the Killam bequest at the University of Alberta, see this page.