Dr. Matias Kirst

Professor

School of Forest Resources and Conservation

2015-2016 UF Doctoral Dissertation Advisor/Mentoring Award

Research is the engine of human progress – and graduate students are the fuel for that engine. Our role, as student advisors and mentors, is to help them be the innovators and agents of change that move our society forward. Since joining the graduate faculty at the University of Florida over a decade ago, I had the opportunity to advise students from a broad range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. The majority of these students joined my research program without yet realizing the value and the potential impact of their future research work. Over the years I have followed a few general principles that I believe are critical to make students realize that impact, and to guide them towards a successful academic and professional career. Below I describe some of the principles that I have found to be particularly valuable in mentoring my graduate students.

Create a culture of passion for research and its value for society. The big picture. The understanding of the broad impact of their research and how it can change society. This understanding triggers the passion and dedication that is critical to keep graduate students engaged in their research and hungry for more discoveries. This passion is clear in the quality of their work and impact of their achievements, and is shown by my students winning the UF/IFAS Award of Excellence for Graduate Research in the last two years. This recognition reflects the execution of a high-impact and rigorous research, and demonstrates how engaged and excited these students are about their projects.

Research tailored to their dream career motivates the students to be high achievers.“What is your dream job when you finish graduate school?” … is the first question I ask students that join my laboratory. Their answer and the evolution in their thoughts about a career path dictate the mentoring and training that will follow in the next years. Some students have joined our research group with the dream of leading their laboratory and advising their own graduate students in the future. These students are given the chance to mentor undergraduates and teach classes, while training intensively in scientific writing. Others have shown an inclination to entrepreneurship. For those students I provide opportunities to carry out extracurricular activities that prepare them to the corporate world and create their own business while still in graduate school. This tailored approach has resulted in all my doctoral students becoming leaders in their field, by following very diverse career paths in industry or as faculty in academia, in the US and overseas. 

Fostering independent and creative thinking leads to students that are innovators.Doctoral research involves finding solutions to problems that have not yet been addressed or solved. Thus, innovation and creativity are paramount. But how does one “teach” innovation and creativity? For my graduate students, the formula for success has been establishing a strong theoretical background while stimulating independent thinking to seek alternative approaches to solving problems. This research environment has translated in students contributing to major discoveries and resulted in them co-authoring several patents filled by the University of Florida. This spirit propagates into their professional careers as shown by two of my recent graduates, who received the “Young Entrepreneur Award” from the State of Florida. This award recognizes Florida students, college graduates and young entrepreneurs who are creating innovative ideas in Florida.

Know and be known – Stimulate graduate students to become known by the community of future collaborators and employers.My students are highly encouraged to network with established scientists and potential employers by participating in local, national and international scientific meetings. Since 2010, they have made 38 presentations at international conferences. These students have also authored over 20 peer-reviewed publications in journals such as Science and PNAS. Their research successes and exposure to scrutiny by the scientific community has created the perception that future leaders and high-achievers are trained in our research group. It gives the students a sense of confidence and belonging to a community that is highly competitive but rewarding to those that contribute to its progress. As a consequence, these students are highly sought by employers in academia and industry for the quality of their work and their personal character. 

Treating the student as a colleague in the profession. Mentoring requires mutual respect and responsibilities. These same principles apply to graduate students and their advisors. For my students, it is critical that they have a clear understanding that it is not only the responsibility of the advisor to provide input and ideas about their research project, but that the student is an integral part of that responsibility too. I anticipate that, as they build the necessary background, they will take ownership of their projects and will move them much beyond the general lines of research that were initially proposed by me.  For me, the advisor, I make it a priority to immediately and constantly provide feedback to my students. Continuous feedback shows them that I have the same level of engagement to their research that they have, and allow them to rapidly move new ideas forward. 

Mentoring graduate students is the most rewarding activity in an academic career because it guarantees the continuation of research progress in the area that we are passionate about. To see doctoral students following their dream careers is not only a testament to the effort made during their graduate education. It also establishes long-term partnerships that catalyze research and attracts new, talented individuals. As a consequence, mentoring a graduate student is a tremendous opportunity for growth and development for every faculty.