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Yiran Chen, Ph.D.

Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring
John Cocke Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering


Yiran Chen is the John Cocke Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke. He received his B.S. and M.S. in electronic engineering from Tsinghua University in Beijing. In 2005, Chen graduated from Purdue University with a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering.

Before joining Duke faculty, Chen was an associate professor with tenure at The University of Pittsburgh, where he was also a Bicentennial Alumni Faculty Fellow. In addition to his professorship at Duke, Chen also serves as director of the NSF AI Institute for Edge Computing Leveraging the Next-generation Networks (Athena).

Chen’s research focuses on machine learning and neuromorphic computing. As an academic, he has published one book and over five hundred technical publications. To add to his impressive repertoire, Chen has been granted ninety-six US patents and has been on the committee for over sixty international conferences.

On Mentoring

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

In my view, the main job of a mentor is to prepare students to make important and effective contributions to humanity. This role involves respecting students and understanding their unique needs, guiding their growth based on these needs, giving constructive advice without forcing it, and keeping up-to-date with the latest knowledge in the field. Most importantly, a good mentor needs to be a good listener, patient, empathetic, and ready to motivate and inspire. These qualities are crucial not only for helping students progress in their academic and professional lives but also for creating a supportive environment where they feel confident to come up with new ideas and realize them.

How have you evolved as a mentor compared to when you first started mentoring? 

When I was a junior faculty member, my focus was mainly on quantitative metrics like GPA and publications to gauge student success. Over time, I've shifted to a more holistic perspective, recognizing the importance of personal growth, the impact of their work, and the uniqueness of each student's journey. Success isn't one-dimensional, and mentoring requires a tailored approach to truly nurture each student's potential. This evolution in my mentoring philosophy has underscored the value of diverse measures of success and the significance of individualized mentorship paths.

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

One of the most rewarding aspects of being an academic mentor is the mutual growth experienced alongside your mentees. Their successes become your own, reflecting the profound symbiosis of the mentor-mentee relationship. The more my students thrive, the more accomplishments we collectively achieve. Interacting with my students enhances my grasp of cutting-edge research and knowledge, rendering the learning journey both smooth and rewarding. I am hard-pressed to find any other mentor-mentee dynamic in the world that embodies such harmony, and it's an aspect of my role that I deeply cherish.


Excerpts from Chen's nomination

“Beyond his academic accomplishments, what sets Prof. Chen apart is his commitment to his students. He has consistently provided invaluable guidance and mentorship in both academic and personal realms. During times when I faced challenges and setbacks, Prof. Chen was always there with words of encouragement, ensuring I maintained my confidence and focus.”

“Prof. Chen consistently devoted his time and passion to one-on-one meetings, weekly group meetings, and various academic discussions. His mentorship style created an environment where open dialogue and collaboration thrived, fostering a sense of unity and shared purpose within our academic community.”

“Despite his busy schedule, Prof. Chen ensured that each of his students met with him weekly alongside fast response times over email. In addition to research direction, Prof. Chen provided opportunities to gain experience in grant proposal writing, peer reviews, academic paper writing, technical presentations, external internships, and mentoring my own undergraduate interns.”