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Paul Westerhoff

2015 ODM Paul Westerhoff
Paul Westerhoff
Senior Advisor to the Provost for Engineering and Science, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

My graduate students know that I like using analogies to describe complex engineering principles, so I will do so here to describe my teaching philosophy as that of training a cook to become an Iron Chef. If you are not familiar with the original Iron Chef series, the 1980’s Japanese TV show pitted true masters of cuisine and food design against successful restaurant chefs. The two chefs dual, with help from two sous chefs on each team. The “Chairman” unveils a secret ingredient, whose history and cultural significance is described by an off-screen commentator, around which the Iron Chef and the competitor teams must be inspired and create five original and exquisite dishes within one hour for a three-personal panel of taste-testing reviewers. Points are assigned for originality, use of the secret ingredient and taste. The Chairman then, with much fanfare, announces the winner.

My role is not as the Iron Chef, but to find the very best qualities in each student so they find a path to become their own Iron Chef. They must be inspired by the “secret ingredient,” which perhaps is the research topic that I have obtained funding for them to work on. My intent is to inspire them with this secret ingredient and to help them shape themselves and the product of their research into something they are proud enough to present or submit for publication to critical reviewers. Some would call this learning the scientific process, developing hypotheses, etc. Like the chefs battling in the Iron Chef Stadium, I have students present their laboratory experimental and/or modeling results and thoughts nearly weekly to practice and hone their ability to tell a compelling story. I believe that my personal success comes from seeing real personal and scientific growth in the chefs coming through my research group, ones that understand how to look at ingredients (aka scientific challenges) in creative ways and be able to design (bring together ingredients), execute (blend and cook the ingredients) and deliver a high-quality and desirable product to paying clients ranging from industry or cities to federal research sponsors (a well organized and beautiful plate of food for the tasters).

Perhaps more seriously, my mentoring philosophy strives to find the strengths and weaknesses within each graduate student and give them the personal and scientific tools to leverage and overcome these. At the graduate level, I mentor both masters of science and doctoral students in engineering, specifically in the field of environmental engineering which spans from identifying environmental problems, through modeling complex mechanistic behavior of pollutants, to technological solutions to remove pollutants from water. The research has a very strong public impact because the public has an emotional connection to water – and as such many of my graduate students are inspired to help society through improving water quality and making high-quality water available to citizens of the world.

Students usually work on individual projects, within small groups of graduate students at various stages of progression towards their degree. This not only provides deep mentoring opportunities but allows everyone exposure to a broad range of research topics. My group includes undergraduate, masters-level, PhD-level and post-doctoral researchers – typically containing 12 to 15 people. This will include one or two visiting international scientists too. Because much of my work is interdisciplinary, two other ASU faculty (Herckes and Hristovski) usually participate in weekly meetings and often bring one to three of their own students. Each student in my group presents their research approximately once every other week at Friday research meetings, getting feedback from other students and faculty. During the week, 1:1 meetings and through email communications we finalize details which allow the meetings to be more focused on the interpretation of results and experience in presenting and defending their work.

Over a period of 20 years at ASU I have graduated, as chair of their committees, 18 PhD students (seven women; 11 men) and approximately 40 MS thesis students. Nearly all of these were financially supported on grants I obtained. However, while I provided the bulk of their funding nearly every student has received some type of outside fellowship/scholarship ranging in size from $250 from local associations to full NSF or EPA PhD multi-year fellowships. I encourage and support them submitting these, and for the most part, have them keep these kudos without decreasing their financial support I provide them. Learning to ask, and learning how to receive this type of recognition is an important skill.

I strive to recruit a diverse set of graduate students in my own research group, and I have a well-balanced mix of men/women, domestic/international and ethnically diverse students. I also invite students from around the globe to work in my lab for three to 18 months, allowing them opportunities but also allowing my students to interact with a global community. Additionally, starting over 12 years ago I began organizing graduate recruitment events for environmental engineering as the graduate program chair, then for the Department of Civil, Environmental and Sustainable Engineering as Department Chair, then for the College of Engineering as the Associate Dean for Research in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. In the latter capacity, I also revamped the Deans Fellowship funding model and increased the recruiting success of domestic PhD students to ASU.

In all aspects of scientific and professional rigor, my graduate students excel. PhD students routinely publish at least four peer-reviewed journal papers and obtain the job they desire. These papers are not purely an academic exercise or hoop to jump through. I try to express the obligation we have to federal and other sponsors of research to not just educate ourselves but to archive our knowledge and experience for others to learn and build upon. Consequently, many of our papers receive a high level of citations and recently many receive general public attention through press stories. The H-index for my research group is 49 and our work has been cited by others over 9000 times. These successes bring success to my students. Prior students employment ranges from being professors at universities across the US, including Norte Dame in the USA, to top universities in Mexico, Taiwan, China, and South Korea. Other students aspire to serve in federal, state, local or private industries and all are doing well.