Professors Ackerman and Halter Receive Faculty Mentor Awards

The Graduate Forum

April 13, 2016

On Tuesday, April 12th, the recipients of the 2016 Faculty Mentor Awards at the Graduate Poster Session were announced. Established in 2005, the award recognizes and highlights the outstanding graduate mentoring activities that are undertaken by Dartmouth faculty advisors. In addition to publicly recognizing each recipient’s contributions to the school’s graduate community, the GSC also credits $500 dollars to each faculty member’s Dartmouth account to encourage further mentoring. This year, Margaret Ackerman and Ryan Halter, both from the Thayer School of Engineering, were selected for the award.

Each year, students from all of Dartmouth’s Arts and Sciences graduate programs submit letters of recommendation to the Graduate Studies Office for faculty members who they feel exhibit excellent mentoring qualities. 

The Faculty Mentor Award is a vote of recognition from the student body for those have gone above and beyond to support, guide, and encourage them in pursuit of research and scholarship. Given the volume of nominations for the 2016 Faculty Mentor Awards, many of the students recognize that they are indeed standing on the shoulders of giants.

Professor Margaret Ackerman, or Margie as her students know her, joined tenure-track faculty at the Thayer School of Engineering in 2011. Her research is in protein engineering, biotherapeutics, vaccine technology, and engineering immune responses. She received a BS in chemistry and an MS in biochemistry at Brandeis. She earned her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she was trained as a protein engineer in Dane Wittrup’s lab in the departments of chemical engineering and biological engineering.

Speaking of the mentor-mentee relationship she had with Wittrup she tells us “I remember very few experiments where I wasn’t the one holding the reins. Perhaps I just didn’t pay enough attention,” she laughs, “I felt like I was able to make all the decisions.”

This is an approach that has won Ackerman high praise from her mentees, who speak admiringly of the high standards she sets her students, but also the constant support she provides. “She inspired me to step out of my comfort zone, and indulge in topics that are new and unfamiliar,” writes one of her nominators. “One of the things she mentioned that stuck with me was “If you cannot bring ideas to the discussion; make sure you bring questions.”

Her commitment to members in her lab extends beyond research, and many spoke of the collegial atmosphere beyond the lab. Cognizant of the social isolation that can occur at Dartmouth, particularly when in the PhD trenches, Ackerman acknowledges that she places importance on valuing her students “as people, not just as trainees.”

Ackerman joins her students in social pursuits and encourages a strong sense of collegiality, which also sends a message signaling the importance of a healthy work-life balance “Beyond her impressive intellectual insight and professional management of our lab and collaborations, she is incredibly dedicated to the members of her lab and goes above and beyond to make us better scientists and people in general,” writes another nominator.

Professor Ryan Halter, also of the Thayer School of Engineering was selected as one of this year’s award recipients. An assistant professor at Thayer since 2006, he joined the tenure-track faculty in July 2013. Halter’s research interests lie in the fields of biomedical instrumentation; electrical impedance tomography and spectroscopy; medical imaging; tissue bioimpedance; cancer detection technologies; traumatic brain injury and medical robotics.

He earned a BSc in engineering science and mechanics and a M.Sc. in engineering mechanics from Pennsylvania State University and his PhD at Thayer School. Halter credits his thesis advisors, Alex Hartov and Keith Paulsen with giving him the autonomy so many of his own students praise him for giving them.

“Equality during graduate school is what I’m interested in,” Halter says. “It empowers students to take ownership of projects. We want them to be independent, to give them a safe space to fail.” Attesting to this, one of his nominators wrote “We make the same mistakes, sometimes repeatedly, but I have never heard Ryan talk to me with the slightest condescending tone.”

Ryan Halter was chosen as a recipient of this year’s Faculty Mentor Award because of his dedication to graduate mentorship at Dartmouth, and his ability to encourage students to be the best they can, whether it is applying for grants, seeking presentation opportunities, or demonstrating sincere empathy when any of them are facing difficult situations.

“Professor Halter is able to push me to do amazing work and sets high standards,” one student wrote. “I had just expected to do some research to get experience. The work I was doing with him eventually evolved into an undergraduate honors thesis. He pushes me to new heights and makes me do work beyond what I thought I was capable of learning.”

We received many nominations for the Faculty Mentoring Award, and in every letter of recommendation for Professor Halter we learned of the deep respect his students and mentees have for him, speaking highly not only of his ability to listen and empathize with them when the going gets rough, but his encouragement in pushing them to new horizons in their research in a way that helps them feel they are able to contribute effectively.

The very unselfish act of encouraging protégés to seek knowledge and apply themselves to the pursuit of new and alternative answers to the pressing questions facing our times is part of the informal transmission of knowledge—not simply putting the apprentice to work to follow in the footsteps of the master, but to guide and advise and allow the student to become invested in the pursuit.

The Graduate Studies Office and Graduate Student Council are sure you will join us in thanking this year’s recipients, Professors Ackerman and Halter, for all they do to strengthen the tradition of strong mentoring at Dartmouth, and in congratulating them on this award.

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