Graduate College

Sethuraman (Panch) Panchanathan

School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering

Mentoring graduate students is a distinct privilege, a tremendous opportunity and a solemn responsibility. When I reflect on my own experience as a graduate student, I was very fortunate to have had an outstanding mentor (Professor Morris Goldberg) who emphasized excellence, motivated me to solve important and complex problems, encouraged me to be independent and accorded me a number of opportunities to learn from the leaders in my field.

I strongly believe that graduate student mentoring is not only about the emphasis on hard skills such as being a strong technical leader and making innovative contributions to the field, but also about having the opportunity to acquire soft skills such as leadership, independence and an entrepreneurial mindset. While students may or may not imbibe all of these qualities, it is important to have the experiential opportunities provided to them both formally and informally. From my personal experience, I have found that my exposure to soft skills manifested many years after my graduation and have been immensely valuable.

I would like to present the important elements in my mentoring approach - the six I’s, namely Inspiration, Intellect, Innovation, Interdisciplinary, Independence and Impact. I believe that these have had a significant influence on my mentees.

As a mentor, first and foremost, I strive to be an inspiration to my mentees. Students excel when they know that their mentor practices what he/she preaches and that their mentor is committed to their academic and professional development. I have endeavored to inspire my students by being an example with a strong work ethic, integrity, incessant pursuit of excellence, solving societally important problems, and enjoying my work. My mentees, many of whom are very successful in academic positions and industry, have not only been influenced by this approach, but more importantly, are serving as inspirations to their students and colleagues. It turns out that inspiration is infectious.

An important ingredient of a graduate student experience is the curiosity to learn and the active pursuit of excellence. It starts by choosing not only the relevant courses but also the so-called “difficult” courses as part of the course repertoire. This helps develop tenacity and builds the academic character that is required to pursue intense research. I encourage my students to read a number of papers in the scholarly literature and pursue independent study topics, with a goal of building an intense desire to engage in creative research before selecting a specific topic. This broadens their thinking and ensures that the topic they choose will be something that they own and enjoy. I expect my students to present their ideas to our research group, attend and present at top-ranked conferences to validate their ideas, welcome criticisms to improve their work, and publish in premier journals in their respective areas. This expands their intellectual breadth and solidifies their contributions. At the end of the day, all of this is about the development of a strong intellect that serves students well throughout their lives.

To inculcate the spirit of innovation among my mentees, I encourage my students to challenge how things have always been done and to be unafraid to fail. I want them to be critical thinkers who feel empowered to use creative and innovative approaches to solve problems and overcome obstacles. I also encourage my students to be active participants in various internal and external student competitions. For example, my students and student groups have been successful in the Microsoft Imagine Cup, Clinton Global Initiative, Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative, Furnace Technology Transfer Accelerator, and Women in Philanthropy competitions, and have participated in international challenges like the Audio/Visual Emotion Challenge (AVEC) and the Mobile Biometry (MOBIO) Face and Speaker Verification Evaluation Challenge.

Solutions to grand challenges require not only a strong disciplinary expertise but also an appreciation for and engagement with other disciplines. Faculty and students at the Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing (CUbiC) span various disciplines across campus ranging from Psychology, Design, Education, Social Work, Nursing, Science Policy, Engineering and Computing. I encourage strong collaborations, interactions and active supervision of students by an interdisciplinary group of faculty, and also encourage students to actively participate in seminars outside their area of expertise. This has allowed them to formulate problems by drawing inspiration from multiple disciplines. This approach has not only resulted in meaningful solutions through their work, but also very strong contributions to computer science and engineering as evidenced by the numerous awards, publications in prestigious venues, and prototype devices that benefit humanity. The interdisciplinary spirit that permeates CUbiC has also been recognized by the recent success in the NSF IGERT trainee research grant.

An important quality for doctoral students is independence. From the choice of the problem, developing the methodology, carrying out the research tasks, writing papers and research grant proposals, and presenting and defending their work, I expect students to exercise independence and flourish in their program. I view my role as a champion, developer, overseer, critic, and collaborator. I ensure that my mentees are not only excellent team players but also take leadership roles at CUbiC, including actively mentoring Masters, undergraduate and high school students. When they graduate into the “real world”, they are equipped with the skills to be successful in their careers.

While high academic achievement and turning out a world-class thesis is an imperative for students in any doctoral program, the impact of their work extends well beyond this objective. My mentees have to not only publish in strong venues (some of them have won Best Paper and Best Thesis awards), but where appropriate, participate in translating their work to impact society. CUbiC’s mission of assisting individuals with disabilities through a human-centered rather than a technology-centered focus gives students the opportunity to frame and translate their work to benefit humanity.

In conclusion, I am very proud of the achievements of my mentees over the years, not only during their program, but more importantly, how they have flourished in their profession, and how they are making their own impact in their careers. Akin to a grandparent being proud of their grandchildren because they know that their explicit and implicit values have influenced their children, I have also had the privilege of watching my “grandstudents” and observing these values manifesting in them. Reflecting back, I am humbled by the opportunities to work with my outstanding students and most grateful for what they have taught me over the years.

Current and Past Outstanding Doctoral Mentors