Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring
Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science
Bijan Abar is a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering and materials science. Through his research project, “Optimizing the Surgical Treatment of Large Orthopaedic Injuries,” Abar explores how 3D printing can be used to improve surgical outcomes in relation to poor osseous integration, hardware malfunction, and bacterial infections.
During his Ph.D., Abar has mentored 12 high school and undergraduate students. He has helped four of his mentees win grants to support their research, guided three to receive authorship on manuscripts, helped two successfully apply to medical school, and helped two successfully apply to a Ph.D. program. As the senior graduate student in Ken Gall’s Lab, Abar trains students on lab equipment and hosts weekly undergraduate lab meetings on West Campus so students have the opportunity to present their work and receive frequent structured feedback.
Four of Abar’s mentees are through the BOOST Beyond program, where Abar works to help mentees discover and pursue opportunities after high school. He has also served on the program’s executive board as Outreach Team Lead, coordinating and building relationships with community partners. By establishing collaborations with the Emily K Center and the Duke College Advising Corps, Abar helped to strengthen the program’s resources on the technical aspects of college applications. He also implemented office hours where an advisor is available to answer mentees’ questions about the college application process.
What do you think are the most important qualities of a good mentor?
Being a good mentor or leader is not an intrinsic quality. It is a learned skill that can be taught and a skill that grows with experience. I had the opportunity to be a scholar in the Feagin Leadership Program where I was given the space, the coaching and the mindset to improve my mentoring skills. I spend a lot of time reflecting on my mentoring experiences to figure out what worked or more importantly how I can adapt my style to better benefit the mentees at that moment. A mentor should always be thinking about how a task or project can benefit a mentee, and should be creating opportunities that align with their mentee’s goals. In addition, mentors should be cognizant of the inherent power dynamic that exists between themselves and their mentee, and should not ask the mentee to do tasks they are not willing to do themselves. There are lots of tasks in the lab that can be tedious like cleaning beakers or labeling tubes. I make a point to do those tedious tasks with my mentees to emphasize that we are all on the same team.
What is something you have done as a mentor that you are really proud of?
My proudest moment is when one of my mentees called to tell me he was accepted to medical school. I had been working with this mentee for 4 years, planning out his activities, reviewing essays, and practicing interviews, all leading up to this moment. I couldn’t sleep the week the medical school decisions were coming out. When I heard the good news, words could not describe how happy I was that all his hard work paid off and that he was able to pursue his dreams!
Who are some good mentors you have had, and are there mentoring practices or traits from them that you have tried to incorporate into your own approach to mentoring?
Dr. Julia Visgauss continues to be a fantastic mentor that I am always learning from. When we meet, even though we always have a lot to go over, Dr. Visgauss always takes the time to get to know me as a person outside the lab. She asks me how I am doing, if I’ve been able to go climbing, and how she can best help me both with our projects as well as my personal academic goals. With my students, I now make an effort to learn about their lives outside of the lab. This not only helps build a strong and trusting relationship, but allows me to optimize their experience. If I know there is a big exam or life event coming up, I can proactively plan experiments so they have less tasks during stressful times. Another attribute of Dr. Visgauss that I appreciate is she questions how the work I do for her can benefit my career goals. This selfless mindset is what separates a ‘boss’ from a mentor, and this is something I try to emulate for my own mentees.
IN THEIR WORDS
Excerpts from Abar’s nomination
“As a first-generation college graduate, I would have never recognized my inner potential without his guidance. Bijan is the kindest and most intellectually fostering individual that I know.”
“Bijan cares deeply about my research quality, but beyond that, he also cares about the holistic nature of my undergrad career. Being queer, I don’t always feel represented in mechanical engineering. However, thanks to Bijan, I’ve always felt both included and capable of success despite that underrepresentation.”
“Bijan empowers his students to lead their own projects, while simultaneously fostering a collaborative environment where everyone helps each other and learns from each other. He truly wants his students to get the most out of the lab experience. Bijan has driven his students back and forth from west campus to Chesterfield to make sure they don’t miss opportunities at the lab.”