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2012 Dean’s Award: Susan Alberts

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Susan C. Alberts, The Jack H. Neely Professor of Biology, earned her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution from the University of Chicago, an M.A. in Biology from the University of California at Los Angeles, and a B.A. in Biology from Reed College.  She joined the Duke faculty as assistant professor in 1998 after stints as a Research Fellow of the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, and an NIH  National Research Service Award Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago. Professor Alberts' research focuses on the behavioral ecology and ecological genetics of large mammals, with specialties in organismal biology and behavior, evolution, and ecology and population biology.

In recommendations from both current and former students, nominators agree on the many aspects of Professor Albert's mentorship that both define her style and give her a unique place in their professional and personal journeys.

Professor Alberts, a gifted scientist herself, as one nominator puts it quite simply, "knows how to get the best out of people, " but it is how and why she does so that puts her "in an entire league of her own," as another says. Chief among the reasons she is able to motivate others to be high achievers is attributed by another recommender to be " the things that don't appear on a CV-she is an incredibly thoughtful person, both about the work we do itself and about the people and egos behind that work. She is a respectful listener and a clear-minded thinker." It is this thoughtfulness and ability to listen that infuse her mentorship.

A common theme in her nominations is her ability to provide mentoring appropriate for each student. According to one former student, Professor Albert's took "a highly individualist approach to mentoring each of her students and postdocs. For some, she took a more active role in the process, for others, she allowed them the space to work independently. Her strategy for each of us depended on our individual strengths and weaknesses." A current student affirms this observation, noting that Professor Alberts "tailors her mentoring to each of her students, in an effort to nurture and guide their unique abilities. She recognizes that the ideal, most productive and most fruitful relationship between an adviser and advisee varies widely from one student to another.' Another student adds that she also "has an extraordinary ability to alter her mentorship over time, tracking the needs of her students. At every stage in my professional development, she has understood the level of involvement, interest, and guidance that I needed to make it to the next step."

This individualistic approach is also grounded in actions that bolster the professional development of students, as  one nominator explains "As a graduate student in her lab, I had direct training on grant writing, manuscript preparation, and building collaborations. I learned how to review papers, was given the opportunity to present my work at national and international meetings, and started my own mentoring relationships, under her guidance, with undergraduate students working in her lab."  Another student writes that "From the very start, Professor Alberts was instrumental in my development as a scientist and encouraged me to develop my own research. I designed, and with her help and advice, successfully completed a multifaceted project. Importantly, I learned how to develop my own ideas from concept to full reality, to successfully obtain funding for my research, and to present and publish my findings-all essential elements in a comprehensive graduate education."

Several nominators expressed the feeling that Professor Alberts is a role model that they strive to emulate, one noting that "her talent as a mentor has helped me be a better mentor to my students. I actively try to emulate her mentoring style. By being a good mentor to me, she has helped me to be a good mentor to other young biologists." Another student states that "She is an outstanding role model not only for a beginning scientist but in many ways, an outstanding role model for how to live life."

Her enduring and quietly forceful impact on her students is summed up in the words of one of her students: "I cannot say enough wonderful things about Professor Alberts; she is truly a model of integrity, insight, drive, and compassion, in science and in her life as a whole. She is the kind of scientist and human being that I aspire to be, and I know that she will go to every length to shape my unique skills and nurture my personal and professional development."