Praised by her students as a truly outstanding supervisor, food process engineering professor Feral Temelli says she follows a simple principle of mentorship: “I work to build mutual respect, support and understanding.”
A world-renowned food engineer whose career at the University has spanned three decades, Temelli has put that special care into supervising 115 trainees, including 17 master’s and 25 PhD students.
We asked about her winning approach to mentoring graduate students. Here are her replies, edited for length.
What are the most important skills and knowledge that you hope students will gain during their time with you?
Five things stand out in particular. First, I want them to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Second, I want to help them build independence, so that they arrive as students and leave as colleagues. They also need to be able to deal with complex problems, integrating information from different perspectives. They should become team players, and should develop the communication skills they need to defend their ideas.
What is the key to helping students gain these skills?
Rather than micromanaging their work, I give my trainees flexibility and freedom to develop their own approaches, while challenging them to think critically and take the big picture developments into consideration. Instead of telling them what to do, I provoke their creativity by asking critical questions and helping them to develop their own approaches.
How do you establish a working relationship with a new graduate student?
I try to get to know them, their skills and capabilities, right from the beginning. I let them know the expectations we have for them and what it takes to complete their program successfully. And we start building from there. For a PhD, for example, I say we’re starting with a blank sheet of paper. At the end of the day, we need to have a full thesis. So, what’s the roadmap? We start thinking about the stepping stones the student can take to build from one section to the next.
How do you build that relationship over time?
Both inside and outside the lab, I try to build a relationship based on mutual respect and trust. Part of this is social: outside the lab, we have some get-togethers. Having a dinner party at our house with my group and their families is a lot of fun. After every candidacy or defense exam we go to the Faculty Club to celebrate their success. All this helps build the family atmosphere. We get to share stories and get to know each other better in a relaxed environment.
Do you help your students to mentor each other?
Yes, definitely. We treat our lab group as a family. Experienced group members help newcomers in every aspect -- helping with training on equipment and in various techniques, and also personal aspects they may need help with. We have group meetings, where we discuss everyone’s progress and other issues in the lab. Students also do practice presentations before a candidacy or defense exam or before going to a conference. Their peers help them with their preparation and challenge them to think about various questions.
How do you support students facing setbacks in their programs?
I try to understand what issues they may be faced with and help them deal with those issues while supporting them with their work. I acknowledge that dealing with everything at once may be overwhelming, so it is better to split into smaller parts or goals that may be easier to achieve and try to set reasonable timelines. I also reassure them that things do not work smoothly all the time. You need to keep trying different approaches. In the end, it is rewarding to see new results after all that hard work and experiments that may have failed.
Are there any differences in terms of how you mentor international students?
Years ago, I came from Turkey to the U.S.A. for my PhD -- so I certainly understand the challenges international students are faced with. I pick them up at the airport to welcome them, and all team members provide assistance as they settle into their new life here and learn their way around. They need a lot of support when they first arrive, until they adapt to their new settings and learn the expectations of our program. I try to understand their background/culture and try to provide “home away from home” as much as possible, making sure they are off to a good start.
What moments do you find most rewarding in your work as a supervisor?
I am excited to see my students succeed as independent scientists in academic, government or industrial settings, some have moved up to leadership positions, building on the training they have received. Now, they are carrying the torch and providing mentorship to younger colleagues/students. Some of them tell me that they are following my example in some aspects of how they are mentoring, which is rewarding to hear. It’s nice to know that you have set a good example for them.
What does it mean to you to receive the Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring?
It really is a privilege to mentor so many young, bright individuals -- and then seeing them be successful in whatever they choose to do in their careers is my source of pride and joy. I was awarded Killam Annual Professorship in 2012, and now receiving this award is quite incredible. I really appreciate the generosity of the Killam family and their support for these programs.
The Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring recognizes academic staff members at the University of Alberta who demonstrate outstanding performance in mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in research, as well as postdoctoral fellows and visiting researchers. For information on our 2020 Killam Laureates, see this page. For more on Prof. Temelli’s work, see this 2015 story.