Two men and a woman engage with graduate students

Baglietto, Saxe, and Shoulders ensure grad students thrive

Categories: Faculty, MIT News

For three Committed to Caring honorees, mentorship is demonstrated through generosity and making connections.

The journey through graduate school is rarely straight and smooth. There are challenges and setbacks, students experience varying degrees of doubt and struggle, and many redefine their goals along the way. On this winding path, the guidance of a mentor can make all the difference to a student’s sanity and success. Professors Emilio Baglietto, Rebecca Saxe, and Matthew Shoulders were nominated by their graduate students as models of great mentorship, and are among the current slate of honorees for Committed to Caring (C2C).

Emilio Baglietto: Making the connection

Professor Emilio Baglietto’s “unparalleled enthusiasm” for teaching is both contagious and formative of his students’ academic development, his advisees say. “It was during his class that I felt I actually became a nuclear engineer,” one of his them remarked.

Before coming to MIT, Baglietto worked in the nuclear engineering industry and cites the experience as being highly influential of his teaching and research style. He earned his MS in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Pisa in 2002, and his PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 2004. Baglietto is now an Associate Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT.

His advisees say he is especially dedicated to helping his students make connections with the broader field of nuclear engineering. This type of ‘informal advising’ (a precept that is one of the Mentoring Guideposts identified by the C2C program) helps students to feel well-grounded and sufficiently prepared for the future. One student recounts: “Baglietto consistently encourages everyone in our research group to network broadly, and has funded our entire group to attend some of the top international research conferences. He is truly committed to our professional growth and development.”

Baglietto has also prioritized fostering a friendly and inclusive work environment (another of the C2C Mentoring Guideposts). One of Baglietto’s students noted in their nomination letter that “he creates a collaborative environment in which it is understood that each person’s opinion must be treated with respect, and that each individual contributes value to the research group as a whole.”

One of the central practices Baglietto encourages in his lab–and a tenet he learned from his middle school math teacher–is “to enjoy competition.”

“Research is not that different from sport, so don’t be afraid of competing,” he urges. “Go out and challenge other groups with your ideas, make it fun … and never be afraid of challenging yourself and your ideas!”

Rebecca Saxe: Generously present

Professor Rebecca Saxe believes science is both a pleasure and a privilege. “We get to spend our time pursuing hard elusive ideas because of our own profound curiosity,” she muses. “And it is possible for that pursuit to be intrinsically motivating and satisfying.”

That approach has informed her excellent mentorship practices in MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department, where Saxe is the John Jarve (1978) Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Associate Member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. She received her BA in Psychology and Philosophy from Oxford University and her PhD in Cognitive Science from MIT.

Saxe’s nominators write that through her research and engagement with the public, she is “an extremely generous and kind person who is invested in making the world a more generous and kind place.”

Giving with both her time and attention, Saxe fosters a friendly and inclusive work environment (one of the C2C Mentoring Guideposts). Most notably, she welcomes to her lab collaborators of diverse academic backgrounds: “For some, working in Rebecca’s lab is an introduction to academic research,” one advisee said. “These opportunities are incredibly meaningful and result in a more diverse and rich lab environment.”

This attitude of inclusion does not stop with her lab or with academic colleagues. Consistently finding opportunities to engage with the broader public, one advisee remarked that Saxe “not only encourages lab members to organize and hold outreach events, but she herself gives talks and presentations to general audiences, such as TED talks, stage shows at the MIT Museum, and presentations associated with Cambridge Science Festival.” Her TED talk has been viewed nearly 3 million times and its transcription has been translated into 33 languages.

For Saxe, good mentorship is a crucial component of her own work. When responding about how she balances all of her responsibilities Saxe notes: “As a scientist, I do almost all of my real work in collaboration with students and post-docs. So, advising and mentoring is very compatible with my responsibility to do research.”

Matthew Shoulders: Thriving together

Shoulders encourages peer mentoring in his lab, emphasizing that “a key part of being a scientist is learning to mentor others effectively.” In order to implement this system of peer-support, Shoulders says, “I ask each student to develop their own mentoring skills and track record, and then I work with them to guide these efforts.”

In nominations letters submitted to C2C, students note that Shoulders “reminds us that being a good scientist involves not only stewarding the time and resources we have, but also caring for and supporting those we work with.”

Now the Whitehead Career Development Associate Professor in Chemistry, Shoulders earned his BS in chemistry from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and his PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After a post-doctoral fellowship with the American Cancer Society at the Scripps Research Institute, Shoulders joined the MIT professoriate in 2012.

Among the good mentoring practices that Shoulders promotes in his lab is speaking openly and honestly about a healthy work-life balance (a Mentoring Guidepost). Shoulders says: “I encourage my co-workers to engage in ‘conscious prioritization,’ a process in which they should intentionally assess their priorities and time commitments to different aspects of their life, as well as the associated costs and benefits, several times a year.”

Shoulders provides his students with an open line of communication (another Mentoring Guidepost). “Early on, I learned that I could count on Matt to make himself available to chat about data, my latest crazy idea, or my existential crises about graduate school,” wrote one nominator. Often telling students to “just swing by his office,” Shoulders’ open invitation remains, even as his schedule becomes busier.

When asked for the best piece advice he could give to an MIT student, Shoulders offered: “Don’t waste time questioning yourself and whether you belong here – you do! Instead, find colleagues that support you and be courageous in pursuing your goals, whatever they may be. MIT is an awesome place, so spend your time here taking advantage of it and not worrying about success or failure.”

More on Committed to Caring (C2C)

The Committed to Caring (C2C) program is an initiative of the Office of Graduate Education and contributes to its mission of making graduate education at MIT “empowering, exciting, holistic, and transformative.”

C2C invites graduate students from across MIT’s campus to nominate professors whom they believed to be outstanding mentors. Selection criteria for the award include the scope and reach of advisor impact on the experience of graduate students, excellence in scholarship, and demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion.

By recognizing the human element of graduate education, C2C seeks to encourage good advising and mentorship across MIT’s campus.