Dr. Yafeng Yin
Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering
2011-2012 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
I am truly honored to be nominated by my students for the Doctoral Dissertation Advising/Mentoring Award. I am humbled to submit this personal statement to the selection committee because I know that many of my colleagues have done phenomenal jobs in advising Ph.D. students and I have learned a lot from them by observing their mentoring styles and approaches. Mentoring Ph.D. students is both challenging and rewarding. It gave me utmost delight to see my students grow professionally and personally. I certainly experienced my fair share of frustration and disappointment. I view writing this statement as an opportunity to review what I have done during the past six years and prepare myself for an eventful and joyful journey that I just started, and will continue for many years to come.
I very much appreciate the fact that my students chose me as their advisor and what I do in the subsequent four or five years will have a long lasting impact on their lives and careers. It is a great responsibility that I take very seriously. I strive to establish a positive and trustworthy advisor-advisee relationship with my students to instill research ethics, drive, and skills in them. In research, I embrace them as collaborators, not apprentices. I conduct most of my research in concert with my graduate students and we solve problem together. I recognize their contribution and often credit them with the leading authorship of the papers we publish together. In addition to providing them sufficient funding support, I am always an advocate for them and want them to have every opportunity to be more successful. Outside of research, I want to be their friends. I listen to them carefully and share with them my personal experience. I let them know that we are advisor and students for a few years but will be friends and colleagues for life.
I attempt to build a nurturing environment to inspire students’ research interests. We all know that aptitude is critical to success in research, but motivation and perseverance are of equal importance. I teach two graduate courses and require all my students to take them in their first year. I diligently update the course materials every semester, and take painstaking care in making them lucid and interesting. My goal is to stimulate students’ intellectual curiosity and make them leave classes motivated to conduct their own research. I try to bring the cutting-edge scholarship to students to help them see the opportunities of the field and encourage them to discover the excitement that can be found in solving transportation problems. In the first year of their graduate study, I normally hand over each student a well-considered research topic. The student is asked to conduct further investigation and carry out the implementation. Since I work very closely with them along the way to provide detailed guidance, students often complete their first research topics with reasonable amount of effort. They learn basic research fundamentals throughout process and build a solid foundation. More importantly, it helps build their self-confidence, stimulates their interests in relevant research areas, and motivates them to tackle more challenging topics. Because such first-year research projects have been very helpful and effective, I continue to spend a lot of time on finding out new ideas and carefully designing them for new students. To help my students become independent problem solvers and researchers, I always guide them to find dissertation topics that utilize their strengths and match their interests. I also provide financial support to my graduate students to present at academic conferences every year. I encourage them to get firsthand knowledge of the research frontier, network with other transportation professionals and hone their presentation skills. Before attending a conference, I always discuss with my students regarding their presentation preparation, sessions or talks to attend, and fellow researchers to interact with. I tell my students to take advantage of the opportunity to showcase their work and learn from others.
I also promote a cooperative learning environment in my research group. I urge students to engage with each other and strongly encourage team work and collaboration. In addition to weekly one-on-one meetings, we have a weekly group seminar where students present their research results to the group. I encourage students to make rigorous critique as well as constructive comments, and demonstrate to them how to strategically fuse others’ ideas with their own.
I fully recognize that every student is unique with different experiences, skill sets, learning habits, and personalities. Effective mentoring relies on a deep understanding of such uniqueness and a well-designed mentoring plan that is tailored to each individual student’s needs. One-size-fits-all does not work in education. In my first meeting with my students, I always ask themabout or encourage them to think seriously about their expectations and goals for the graduate study, their research interests, and career plans after graduation. I require all my students to take my courses during their first two semesters at UF, because this provides me numerous opportunities to evaluate their potentials, strengths and weaknesses. During their first-year research projects, I keep evaluating them and adjusting my expectation for each individual student to be high but achievable. For all my students, after their first year, I am able to come up with an education plan that aims to improve the individual student’s weakness and prepare him or her well for his or her long-term career goal. It is a constantly evolving plan that requires fine-tuning as the student progresses and matures. During their senior years, frequent and regular communication with my students is achieved via weekly one-on-one meetings. I maintain an open door policy and welcome all my students to stop by my office to discuss any professional and personal issues.
I constantly remind myself of that commitment and mutual respect is key to maintaining a positive advisor-advisee relationship. Since joining the University of Florida as an Assistant Professor in August 2005, I have graduated four Ph.D. students. Two of them obtained a faculty position upon graduation (at the University of Alabama, and Dalian University of Technology, China) and the other two are employed as research scientists (at Amazon and Korea Transport Institute). Currently, I am supervising six Ph.D. students, two of whom are about to graduate in Fall 2011. Five of my Ph.D. students won numerous paper or presentation awards at international, national, state and university levels. Notably, Yingyan Lou won 2009 Pikarsky Award for Outstanding Ph.D. Dissertation in Science and Technology from the Council of University Transportation Centers (CUTC), whose members include more than 85 of the nation’s premier university-based transportation research and education programs. Dimitra Michalaka won the same award in the master thesis category, i.e., 2009 Pikarsky Award for Outstanding M.S. Thesis in Science and Technology. These two awards are given annually based on a national competition for the best Ph.D. dissertation and the best M.S. thesis in the field of science and technology in transportation studies. Dimitra is also the 2011 winner of the Future Industry Spotlight Award from the American Road & Transportation Association, the 2011 recipient of the Gator of Engineering Attribute Graduate Student Award for Leadership, and the 2011 winner of the Alec Courtelis Award from the University of Florida International Center.