Dr. Kirk Ziegler
Department of Chemical Engineering
2016-2017 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
While I had always enjoyed seeing my knowledge transferred to others, I had not considered a career as a professor until my classmates in undergraduate school suggested that I pursue a career that involved teaching and mentoring. They recognized my sincere desire to help and expressed gratitude for my ability to explain difficult concepts in terms that were easily understood. After recognizing what others had seen so clearly, I have embraced my role as an educator and mentor and I am appreciative that my classmates encouraged me to pursue a career that has been both exciting and enlightening. Since I joined UF in the Fall of 2005, I have been honored to supervise the research of 51 graduate students. I have chaired or co-chaired 10 PhD graduates, chaired 2 MS graduates, and served as research advisor for another 31 MSNT students. My research group currently consists of 6 PhD, 1 MS, and 1 MSNT student.
Mentoring Style: I believe that excellence in scientific inquiry and discovery in the laboratory is directly related to my dedication and desire to excel as an educator and mentor. One of the most useful graduate courses I took discussed the principles and philosophies involved in educating individuals. In this course, I experienced practical applications of how important the presentation of material is to the successful retention of that material. Furthermore, I learned to appreciate that each individual has a unique primary mode for retaining information. While many individuals retain the material by simply listening to the subject matter, others may only retain it after they have applied it. Therefore, the successful educator/mentor utilizes a multitude of teaching modes so that every individual has sufficient means to retain the subject matter. In addition, the use of multiple techniques has proven to increase the likelihood of retention. These differences in learning style often require patience from an advisor, especially when the learning modes differ from your own. Providing such a learning environment requires sufficient preparation and flexibility and an attention to the unique needs of each student. I have learned that my mentoring style must be tailored to each student; my role is to identify how each student learns best and how to encourage and challenge them to become better at what they do. Although my approach to each student is different, there are some general themes that I believe are important to all students.
Learn a student’s goals early. From the moment a graduate student expresses interest in working in my group, I give them an honest assessment of what I expect and the effort that they need to commit. I believe this is an important step, ensuring that graduate students select a mentor that fits their best interests and needs. One of the first things that I assess is their long term goals so that I can design their graduate experience that fits their objectives. If their goal is an academic position, I have students focus on hypothesis-driven research and assist with writing proposals. I also provide them with additional opportunities to teach in the classroom. For those that seek an appointment at national labs, I encourage them to do an internship or use the specialized equipment at national facilities in their research. For those that seek careers in industry, I focus more on improving their leadership and entrepreneurial skills.
Encourage independent thinking. I believe that the role of the mentor is to push students to excel; to make them realize that they are capable of achieving much more than they ever thought they could. When students have trouble understanding concepts, I don’t simply answer their questions―I ask them questions that help lead them to the answer. This requires a larger time commitment from me but students truly learn the material and are able to explain rather than recite what they have learned. I encourage an open atmosphere where students are welcome to express their opinions and ideas. Because students feel the freedom to express their opinions, they are more inquisitive and genuinely want to learn more about the work of their fellow lab mates. Collectively as a group, we will often brainstorm together, finding unique solutions to complex problems or proposing novel applications that utilize our discoveries.
Get students to take ownership of their project. I often tell my students that “a happy graduate student makes for a happy advisor.” The demands of graduate school are high. Students who are excited about their work and enjoy their time in the lab are the ones that will be committed and productive. When graduate students take ownership of their project, they are able to appreciate the accomplishments of their work. I begin by ensuring that students understand the scientific method and how to design experiments to answer specific research questions. These skills make him/her capable of problem analysis and solutions through self-discovery. Students must begin to appreciate the assumptions often made to analyze problems and learn to analyze data with a heightened degree of scrutiny. In the laboratory, students must learn how to formulate their problems, properly analyze their data, and discover the solutions through their own process. As their understanding and skills improve, I teach students how to choose research problems and the best methods to test their hypotheses. Once students have gained self-confidence in their research and planning skills, I encourage them to move their project to what excites them (within the confines of our research funding). At this point, they are in control of their learning experience and I am more of their guide that keeps them motivated and encourages them to persevere as they encounter challenges or setbacks.
Be more than a mentor. It is important to recognize that students have activities and problems outside of academia. I strive to provide an environment where students can feel free to talk to me about anything. While students tend to be more reserved with the information they share with their advisors, I always share my related experiences and tell them both what has and has not worked for me in similar situations. After they graduate, my former students immediately feel open to discuss all aspects of life. I consider many of my former students to be my friends.
Mentoring Success: My group’s publications are in high impact journals and receive good citations. One of our papers was nominated for the highly prestigious Eni Award, which recognizes the best results from around the world in the field of renewable energy. At group meetings, all students are encouraged to participate in active discussions, ask challenging questions, and provide constructive feedback. This commitment to communication skills has been successful and my students often win awards at conferences. Over the last 8 years, I have had 5 students win 7 awards for presentations at conferences. Another current student was invited to present his work in a special award session later this month.
My graduate students have been remarkably successful in their careers after graduating. Out of the 10 students I have graduated, three of my students have taken positions as professors (one as an adjunct professor), one is a postdoc actively searching for a faculty position, and the others have taken positions at leading industries, such as Intel, ASM International, and Mainstream Engineering. My first student, Dr. Justin Hill, was a recipient of the prestigious Outstanding Young Alumnus Award from UF in 2012. This award is the highest honor given to alumni within 10 years of their graduation. Those that receive the award have an unmistakable tradition of achievement that has a significant impact at the State, National, or International level.
Perhaps the most fulfilling evidence of mentorship success has been the continual interaction that I have been able to maintain with my students after they graduate. Many of them continue to work with our group after graduation―not for the sake of completing work that they were conducting but to provide mentorship to current students or to forge new collaborations in new areas. I have also embraced my role as a lifetime mentor to my former students. Recently, I arranged for my former graduate student to conduct a mock interview in our department to help prepare him for the rigors of an academic interview. We spent a significant amount of time discussing his academic package and the expectations that search committees have when reviewing them. He was grateful that we provided him with constructive feedback that enabled him to improve his package and interview skills.