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2012 Dean’s Award: Farshid Guilak

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Farshid Guilak, the Laszlo Ormandy Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Professor of Biomedical Engineering, earned his doctorate and an M.Phil. in Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University after completing both a B.S. and an M.S. in Biomedical Engineering at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He joined the Duke University School of Medicine faculty and the Department of Biomedical Engineering in 1994. Dr. Guilak was honored with the Laszlo Ormandy named professorship in 2006.

Professor Guilak's nominators are unanimous in their appreciation of their good fortune in working with a mentor who they feel has their best interests at heart, leads by example, and whose intellectual rigor and passion for scientific discovery are infectious, creating a lab environment that, in spite of its 30-plus members, is harmonious and functions at a very high level, "well-balanced between freedom and guidance, which is pivotal for Ph.D education," as one says.

One nominator explains that Professor Guilak's "intelligence, patience, and compassion amalgamate to produce a leader who not only has the intellect to provide valuable insight on a plethora of projects, but also has the understanding to offer comfort and support when projects yield unexpected results." His intellectual merit is accompanied by a well-developed ability to nurture his students when they are confronted by the vagaries of scientific research, as a student notes, "He never criticizes or puts down others for a flawed scientific approach, oversight of a critical issue, or any other mistakes. Rather, he amicably guides others via suggestion, and addresses apparent flaws by asking questions, which teaches his mentees to think critically about their research approaches."

This tendency to guide is also manifested in how Professor Guilak directs student research projects, as one nominator explains, "He never assigns his students to a specific project; rather he offers suggestions based on the students interests and allows each student to sculpt their own project. This method not only provides students with a project they can be passionate about," he says, "but also encourages them to develop independence in the research process."

While this manner of guiding encourages independence, Professor Guilak is accessible at every turn, such that while he offers students a great deal of independence, "he is always available for support and is eager to provide assistance in any way he can." Another nominator also praises his flexible advising style, saying that "Whether I need guidance twice in a week or once in a month I am welcome, which allows me to work independently, but advice is always available quickly if something comes up." Another student sums up this accessibility in the comment that "When Professor Guilak is in the office, the door is literally almost always open. His door is so often open that one need not wonder whether they ought to knock to speak to him when his opinion is needed—the door is open and you are welcome to take his time and discuss ideas, problems, or recent successes with him. "

Professor Guilak also aids his student's mastery of the discipline's skills through his guidance and encouragement of the presentation and publication of research findings: "He consistently encourages students to submit abstracts to conferences, write fellowships, write grant applications, and submit research and review papers to journals. Furthermore, he provides valuable support and feedback through iterations of revisions until the poster, presentation, or paper is complete. Through this process, he teaches students the appropriate methods to concisely summarize findings."  A former student has found that the benefits of this training extend far beyond graduation, explaining "I had many opportunities to present my work to my peers in the lab and several to present at conferences. All these presentations were attended by thoughtful feedback so that, over time, I developed my capacity to communicate professionally to a high level. This is such a rare thing that I have found myself mentoring others about presentation skills in my new environment."

Not least among Professor Guilak's personal qualities are his passion and enthusiasm for science itself, as described by one nominator, "By far, Professor Guilak's most powerful quality is his passion and excitement for scientific discovery. He eagerly supports innovative approaches and celebrates new findings regardless of how trivial they may seem. His enthusiasm for acquiring knowledge is infectious, and it generates an environment where enjoyment of the research process is pervasive."  Another notes also that "His enthusiasm for science and his optimism are contagious, and his interest in the sciences inspires us to work hard even when we are struggling," focusing on the successes and not the failures.

Professor Guilak's inspiring and compassionate guidance fosters a collaborative and creative environment that values both individual and group successes, and his student's faith in his leadership is evident in the comment that "My confidence level has remained high and my stress level has remained low because I know that while my Ph.D. will be my own, Dr. Guilak has been attuned to my progress and has consistently guided me in the right direction."