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Mentor award winners guide undergraduate learning

May 8, 2024 By Meredith McGlone

Each spring the Office of the Provost recognizes outstanding mentors with the Awards for Mentoring Undergraduates in Research, Scholarly and Creative Activities. The nominations for this year’s recipients read like a textbook of great mentoring practices – meeting students where they’re at, getting to know them as scholars and individuals, and guiding their learning with just the right mix of challenge and support. Learn more about these awards – 2025 nominations will open this fall.

Mou Banerjee

Assistant professor, history

A woman speaks with some other people.

Mou Banerjee speaks with her undergraduate student mentees on the Memorial Union Terrace.

Banerjee “embodies the ideal of a mentor-teacher-scholar,” in the words of colleague Kathryn Ciancia. A transformative mentoring opportunity grew out of her observation that as she taught about the impact of Gandhi’s nonviolence practices on past social justice movements around the world, students were using what they learned to understand present-day examples, such as the protests following the murder of George Floyd. Banerjee raised funds for and launched the Nonviolence Project to provide undergraduates the opportunity to design their own research on these topics. The project has produced a website exploring civil resistance in more than 25 countries and been nominated for a national award. While shepherding students’ research, Banerjee also takes a deep interest in their lives and future goals, offering encouragement and advice. Says one student: “I can’t tell you how much she has done for me or how crucial her support has been in my success.”

Ellie Breitfeld

Graduate student, psychology

A woman and a man talk and gesture.

Psychology graduate student Ellie Breitfeld interacts with undergraduate mentee Howard Owens as the two set up controls for a language learning study in the Waisman Center’s Infant Learning Lab. Photo: Jeff Miller

Breitfeld “approaches mentoring with both wisdom and humility, meeting students where they are, and figuring out how to curate learning experiences for them that will be maximally beneficial,” says her advisor, Jenny Safran. For student Howard Owens, that included coaching on how to prepare his first-ever research presentation. “Any time I hit a roadblock during my preparation, Ellie was available to help me,” he says. The talk succeeded beyond his expectations and opened up additional opportunities. “I really look up to her and aspire to be a researcher and mentor like her,” he says.

Eren Fukuda

Graduate student, psychology

A group of people sit around a table, laptops in front of them, talking.

Right of center, psychology graduate student Eren Fukuda discusses an article with undergraduate student mentees during a weekly group meeting in the Waisman Center’s Social Kids Lab. Fukuda studies how young children think about social categories such as race and gender. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Fukuda’s advisor, Kristin Shutts, describes her as a “fierce advocate” for the students she mentors, from the day they begin work in the Social Kids Lab through graduation and beyond. She includes her students in every aspect of the research, even when doing so requires more time. And she creates opportunities for additional learning, such as weekly meetings to discuss research articles. Outside the lab, her advocacy for fellow international students on the International Student Advisory Board made a powerful impression on one of her mentees, who says, “I still apply what I learned by observing Eren’s grace whenever I have to talk about difficult topics with others.”

Pupa Gilbert

Vilas Distinguished Achievement professor, physics

Three people pose for a photograph, arms around each others' shoulders.

At center, physics professor Pupa Gilbert is shown with postdoc Christina Castillo Alvarez (left) and undergraduate mentee Isabelle M. LeCloux (right) at the Advanced Light Source lab in Berkeley, California. In the background is the PEEM microscope they use to study coral growth and skeletal structure. Photo submitted by Pupa Gilbert

For a young researcher, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of seeing your name as co-author on a publication for the first time. Thanks to Pupa Gilbert, quite a number of undergraduates have gotten that thrill. Gilbert’s group uses the PEEM microscope shown here to study the formation of biominerals in the skeletons of coral, sea urchins and other creatures. Many of her students (who call themselves Cnidarians after the animal phylum they study) come from backgrounds that have been underrepresented in science. “It is an amazing journey, to start out the undergraduate experience with only a high school diploma, and then arrive at publications in prestigious journals,” says one student. “I believe it was only possible because of Dr. Gilbert’s excellent and thorough work.”

Caroline Gottschalk Druschke

Vilas Distinguished Achievement professor, English

A group of people stand and pose for the camera in a green field.

Professor Caroline Gottschalk Druschke (standing right of center holding a hat) is pictured with undergraduate students from one of her classes as the group participates in Valley Conservation Day, a Coon Creek Watershed celebration in southwest Wisconsin, on May 4. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Community-engaged research and learning are central to Druschke’s work, much of which focuses on the Coon Creek Watershed in southwest Wisconsin. She and her students in the Headwaters Lab explore public engagement and freshwater ecosystems through efforts such as stream restoration, agricultural conservation, and fisheries management. While her mentorship has helped students land internships, jobs, and other opportunities, it is Druschke’s attitude that meant the most to one student. “When I doubted my abilities, she made sure to reassure me. When I got stuck, she provided me with every resource possible to allow me to succeed. When I felt confident in my work, she echoed that confidence louder than I ever thought possible.”

Pauline Ho

Graduate student, educational psychology

A woman sitting in a chair talks and gestures to two other people.

At center, educational psychology graduate student Pauline Ho provides feedback to undergraduate mentees Jiaxin “Jasmine” Li and Yue “Lucie” Yao as the group works on a research poster for an upcoming conference and a manuscript for publication while meeting in a graduate study lounge in Memorial Library. Photo: Jeff Miller

Qualitative research – interviewing, coding, data analysis – on discrimination against Asian Americans requires some rather sophisticated skills. Pauline Ho helps undergraduate researchers learn these skills through a well-organized training program, says her advisor B. Bradford Brown, while also creating a caring environment and supporting students through the struggles many face as first-generation college students and members of underrepresented groups. This approach works so well that her students have gone on to present their work not only on campus but nationally and even internationally; a number are now pursuing graduate degrees themselves. Says one: “Her high standards, expectations, and support for her students have given me the confidence to express myself, pursue my ambitions, and achieve my career goals as a psychologist studying human development.”

Alyse Maksimoski

Graduate student, integrative biology

Two women talk in an office, with a computer in front of them.

Alyse Maksimoski, left, works with undergraduate student Taviah Levenson doing a cell count of fluorescent cells on the computer, in her office in Birge Hall. Photo: Bryce Richter

Maksimoski greets new student researchers with a “welcome packet” that helps them understand the Riters Lab’s culture and expectations and also sets them up to be active participants in their research experience. Her patient, thorough approach covers everything from teaching students the sophisticated form of DNA analysis known as qPCR to ensuring that there are always snacks on hand in case busy students didn’t have time to grab lunch. Mentee Taviah Levenson recalls her willingness to stop by any time she was asked to double-check a count or a placement. “I can confidently say I don’t know if any other mentor I could have had during my undergraduate career would have been as supportive and amazing as Alyse,” Levenson says. “And I’m unsure who will compare since my bar is set so high now.”

Daniel Pearce

Graduate student, biomedical engineering

Three people wearing white lab coats bend over lab equipment as they work on an issue.

Daniel Pearce, right, works on a testing sample with undergraduate students Shreya Sreedhar and Rhea Nagori in a lab in the Engineering Centers Building. Photo: Bryce Richter

Whether he is TAing, mentoring fellow graduate students, or guiding undergraduate researchers, nominators say Pearce stands out for the positive connections he creates. “He has helped me understand that my growth as a researcher is connected to my growth as a person, and that good science and engineering means fostering positive support networks inside and outside the lab,” says mentee Shreya Sreedhar. Pearce tailors his approach to each student’s career goals, including helping with non-research tasks like resume- and application-writing. One student credits Pearce with helping him get his foot in the door to medical school and preparing him to succeed there.

Michael Sheets

Professor, biomolecular chemistry

A man and a woman smile and talk, standing in a presentation hall.

At right, Michael Sheets talks with undergraduate mentee Megan Nchekwaram as she presents her research poster during the Undergraduate Symposium held in Union South’s Varsity Hall. Photo: Jeff Miller

Over a 28-year career, Sheets has seen the power of undergraduate research experiences in attracting and retaining students to STEM majors. Many of the students he’s mentored through the Undergraduate Research Scholars program wind up working in his lab for their entire undergraduate careers. His empathy and reassurance – particularly in the early stages when students often feel lost and intimidated – encourage students to persist. And he works to understand not only where students are now but where they hope to go. Student Megan Nchekwaram says, “Mike has always listened and tried his best to help me attack each aspiration and dream one step at a time.”

Manish Tiwari

Postdoctoral fellow, bacteriology

Two people in white lab coats talk.

Manish Tiwari, right, works on testing samples with undergraduate students in the Microbial Sciences Building. Photo: Bryce Richter

For Tiwari, mentoring undergraduates isn’t something he does on the side – he integrates their training and research deeply into his own experimental planning, says department chair Katrina Forest. And with six students each semester, that’s a lot – each day starts with a sticky note of plans for each student. He charges them to pursue their projects independently but also serves as “a safety net, offering guidance and support when needed, but always encouraging us to take the lead in our learning and discovery process,” says one student. Says another: “He has always created a safe environment and has made me feel that I can come to him with any problem and we will work through it together to create a solution.”