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Dean’s Blog: Building Understanding – What’s it all for?

Students gathered smiling

Day in and day out, we try our utmost to do good and meaningful work. Although we each may have those days when we ask ourselves, "What's it all for?" And we wonder, do I make a difference? 

When we consider our motto, Understand. Innovate. Succeed, the latter two elements, although different for each of us, are fairly self-explanatory. Time and again, members in our community demonstrate that meaningful mentorship goes a long way to address the first element, cultivating understanding – of one’s scientific field, of the societal problems at hand now and in the future, and ultimately, of developing an understanding of oneself and purpose. Nowhere is the impact of our strong mentorship more evident than at graduation or when one of our faculty is honored. 

Last week, more than 60 people gathered together to support the contributions of retiring chemistry professor, Greg Foster. Surrounded by family, friends, staff, faculty, and former students, we celebrated Foster's 35 years at Mason, with speakers detailing the instrumental role he played in the shaping of the department (both serving as chair and encouraging others in the role), his work in his multidisciplinary lab at Mason's Potomac Science Center, and the impact he has had on the day to day learning and work environment he created. 

Faculty and former students (and even his students’ children) spoke at the celebration; recurring themes included how he saw something in them that they perhaps hadn’t seen in themselves, how he motivated them to grow, and also how he treated each of them like family. Surrounded by his children and grandchildren, and the many people who respected his efforts, they were able to honor the meaningful mentorship he provided. 

Or, how about chemistry professor, Fei Wang, who recently received the Faculty Mentoring Excellence Award at the OSCAR Celebration of Student Scholarship and Impact. His nominator noted, “he has been the most supportive, and educational mentor of my life. He has impacted the way I thought about science research in a very positive manner, and has always vouched for my success through all the hardships and obstacles I faced as an undergraduate researcher under his mentorship.” This is a clear example of how quality mentorship of our students is a critical component of their success and innovative mindset.

Also, this weekend two of our Environmental Science and Policy science communicators were honored for their impactful mentoring efforts in a multidisciplinary event hosted by Mason’s Communications Department-- professors Cindy Smith for her creative and enthusiastic work explaining science to thousands of middle schoolers and K. L. Akerlof for her research and actions to effectively bring various academics, businesses, government, and community leaders together to talk through shared environmental challenges and ways to find common ground and solutions to them. 

The impact of our Mason Science community has no limits. 

I am still stoked from our fantastic graduation celebration of the hundreds of Mason scientists going out in the world to make their mark. Our active mentorship helped cultivate the scientific curiosity and perhaps even confidence of those students to get to that momentous point in their journeys. 

Our faculty and staff spend countless hours, days, weeks, and yes, years mentoring our students, through the highs and lows of selecting an academic pathway and choosing classes, establishing a research interest, and pursuing professional aspirations. Whether we meet people when they first discover science at one of our many outreach events, when they first apply to Mason at the beginning of their journey, when they apply to graduate school as they prepare for the next academic and research component of their careers, when they take their science out into our communities as we strive to solve society’s challenges, or perhaps even when they begin to ask themselves, “What’s it all for?”,  we are able to successfully support them at each point along the way.

During graduation, when receiving recognition, or building our own understanding and motivation, it can be easier to remember mentorship’s role to fuel our ‘why’ -- why we do what we do for our students, and our communities. 

And it makes all our hard worth to build understanding so very worth it.