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2021 Dean's Awards: Aaron Franklin

March 21, 2021

Aaron D. Franklin

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring
Addy Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and Chemistry



Aaron D. Franklin is the Addy Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and Chemistry. He completed his Ph.D. at Purdue University and his bachelor’s at Arizona State University. He has authored more than 100 publications, holds more than 50 patents, and has been a featured speaker at many conferences and lectures. Franklin has a robust record of professional service, including serving as general chair of the international Device Research Conference in 2018.

Since joining the faculty at Duke in 2014, Franklin has mentored 22 graduate students in his lab and dozens of undergraduate students. His research in the area of nanomaterials and nanoelectronics has been sponsored by funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, and several private companies.

Since 2017, Franklin has been the director of graduate studies in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. His nominations made numerous mentions of his eagerness to foster academic and professional growth within his lab, as well as his emphasis on respect for all lab members. In 2020, he received the Capers & Marion McDonald Award for Excellence in Teaching and Research from the Pratt School of Engineering.

On Mentoring

What do you think are the most important qualities of a good mentor for graduate students?

To me it comes down to just one quality: caring. If a mentor genuinely cares about their students, truly wanting each student to succeed, it can have a more powerful effect than countless other scripted efforts. For the caring to be genuine, it cannot simply be based on wanting the student to succeed in accomplishing the mentor’s goals; rather, it must be caring that the student succeeds in reaching their own personal goals. When a mentor truly cares, they become willing to adapt their mentorship to the specific needs of each student. Some students thrive by simply being in the environment and culture of a specific research group, while others require more custom adaptation of mentorship to address challenges impeding their success.

What is something you have done as a mentor that you are really proud of?

I have refused to believe that successful mentorship is a rote process. That isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be certain operating policies and expectations for the students in the research group – there definitely should be. But I think an easy trap for STEM professors to fall into, once they have built a successful research group, is to assume that they have now built the ultimate PhD-graduate-creation machine. In such scenarios, when a PhD student falls out of sync in some way with the precisely placed gears and rotors of the machine, they tend to get chewed up and spit out, being labeled as unable to succeed in a PhD. While this can be an efficient process for a PhD advisor, it can also be a morally disheartening, and often inaccurate, labeling of the students’ true potential. Achieving success as a PhD student has many different paths, while each still shares certain attributes in common (e.g., successful scientific study, publication of research results). The variety of personalities, skills, and struggles across the PhD students I have mentored, and the ways I adapted to aid each of them to succeed, is one of the most fulfilling aspects of my time as a professor.

The benefits of a mentoring relationship for the mentee are obvious, but what do you, as the mentor, gain from it?

My mentees have enriched my life in immeasurable ways. They are very much a part of my family, both within our research group and also with my wife and children, who come to care deeply about the students through frequent group get-togethers. When a PhD student graduates from my lab, we hold a group party at my home dedicated to their work and I put together a gift for them of items that most represent their personality, successes, and future goals. I’ve come to feel that if a student is graduating from a research group and it does not feel sad and somewhat painful, emotionally and operationally, then something went terribly wrong.

In Their Words

Excerpts from Franklin’s nomination

“His caring and kindness to people have shaped the mentality in his students. He emphasizes respecting others and has built up a great community of people in the lab. This makes the lab a pleasure to be a part of.”

“Professor Franklin is an expert in his research field, a great mentor that offers helpful suggestions to our research challenges and long-term plans, and an excellent collaborator for other faculty. He helps us get as much teaching and presentation practice as possible and offers open lines for communication.”

“Dr. Franklin has been one of the single most influential people in my life, providing me opportunities that have shaped what I want to do with my life, consistently going above and beyond in his actions.”

Remarks from the Virtual Reception