As an Asian immigrant who lived in the United States for many years, Prof. Weng knows the challenges that ethnic minorities face in academia and life. Thus, he has long been committed to diversity and recognizes the barriers faced by women and other minorities in engaging in science and technology. As my postdoctoral supervisor, Prof. Weng has provided mentoring directly related to my research background – advanced machine learning applications in power systems – and helps me set professional goals, supporting me in meeting goals that help advance my career by keeping me accountable and by providing constructive feedback. But he also helped me navigate living in Arizona my first year in Tempe. As a mentor, Professor Weng is always keeping me motivated to achieve personal goals and persist through obstacles.
Education changed my world view and propelled me to create worldwide impacts. During this process, the passion and excitement made my life enjoyable. Therefore, I have a particular interest in creating an eco-system for my postdoctoral students to grow with three keys: motivation based on student needs, 2) building diversities and logics to reshape their understanding, and creating a sustainable learning environment for long-term rewards.
Creating Excitement and Motivation
I treat mentoring as a job, so I analyze the model and evaluate the impact of mentoring periodically to create a better advising experience for the students and myself. For postdoctoral students in engineering, it is essential to cheer them up in the beginning, understand their motivations, and determine the most exciting and jointly interesting research directions for them. For example, many students are shy and follow the tasks assigned by their advisors. To me, this is not mentoring, but employment. Therefore, I try to be a special friend to my postdoctoral students first by sharing my stories, especially the bad ones, to build trust. Meanwhile, I try to understand their cultures, family needs, and religions to better motivate research based on their interests. However, a short-term plan on research isn’t enough to provide sustainable passion for postdoctoral students. Therefore, I prepare some growth stories, including my past ups and downs at Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University, before becoming a faculty member at ASU. Based on these stories and student background, we jointly plan for long terms, e.g., how to become a professor, an engineering lead, or an entrepreneur. With a clear career goal, postdoctoral students get more excited about learning.
For example, one of my current postdocs was puzzled in his research and his future in an engineering field, primarily due to his age. To make him feel safe, I tried to plan a career for him. To start, I encouraged him to join my taskforce in IEEE PES Subcommittee on Big Data & Analytics for Power Systems. I assigned him the vice-chair position so that he can talk to different speakers in our taskforce on education. In the long-term, I asked him to prepare his resume by comparing the content to the resume of assistant professors. I also have helped him to obtain presenting opportunities at Stanford, UC Berkeley, and MIT, significantly boosting his research visibility. To better prepare him for the faculty jobs, I let him choose the project on which he wanted to take the lead. He has become much more confident after participating in projects from the government (US Department of Energy and National Science Foundation), research institutions (Electric Power Research Institution), and power utilities (Salt River Project in Phoenix and Duquesne Light in Pittsburgh). Throughout this process, I also encouraged him to guide students of different levels gender and background in order to understand what to expect for his upcoming faculty job position. While extensive guidance costs me significant time, I am happy to do it. I agree with the former US Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, who told me: “One should protect his students rather than use them.”
Building Uniqueness and Rigor
One unique component of US higher education is its diversity. Because of such diversity, ASU measures its success not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed. Therefore, I form a diversified group, with male and female, undergraduate and graduate students coming from the US, India, China, Pakistan, Mexico, Kuwait, South Korea, Canada, Europe, Iran, Sri Lanka, and other nations. I encourage my students to learn from each other to tackle hard problems, and hope my students can have unique starting points to boost their career success. The goal is to let students be rigorous, creative, and close to innovations.
On one hand, I try to mentor my postdoctoral students frequently, e.g., two meetings per week if needed. On the other hand, I build online materials, software, and hardware for self-training. For instance, I invite famous speakers worldwide to give talks in machine learning for power systems, record the tutorials, and host them with interactive learning materials for my postdoctoral students to learn. In addition to the expendable knowledge, I created several platforms for my students to practice coding Python, conduct big data analysis, and analyze human behavior on Google Maps.
I am glad to see positive feedbacks coming from my mentoring philosophies. In the past three years, members of my research group earned two Best Paper Awards, a Canadian postdoctoral fellowship, a Mexican CONACYT (NSF) PhD fellowship, three ASU University Graduate Fellowships, two Fulton Undergraduate Research Initiative (FURI) Fellowships, a Barrett Bidstrup Undergraduate Fellowship, two Outstanding Awards for U.S.-Pakistan Centers for Advanced Studies, one Winner Award for the Chunhui Cup in the International Competition on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and 2nd Place in Accuracy and 1st Place in Speed for the RTE International Competition on Using Artificial Intelligence for ”Learning to Run a Power Network”. My group has also helped ASU secure $8 million in grants, opening the door for more mentoring opportunities.