May President's Message: Here’s to Mentors

Most of us, myself included, would not be where we are without the support and wisdom from mentors.  Below I highlight a few of mine, and why I’m grateful to them, but first, updates:

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Back to mentors:  Mine have not only imparted their own wisdom, they’ve also been the ones to hold up the mirror.

Prof. Jerry Hajjar, my undergraduate adviser at the University of Minnesota, was the first mentor to give me “enough rope to hang myself with” – as much responsibility as I could take.  On research projects he pushed me to think bigger, even “biting more than I could chew.” There were times when I had to admit failure.  But when I got over the anger and embarrassment, I realized the lesson underneath: that fear of failure is never enough reason to avoid trying.

Prof. Hajjar also held up a mirror, helping me realize I would always need others to double-check my work.  He pegged me early on for preferring the start of projects vs. the end, and it’s true.  It took more than a few times of him snapping, “Just focus on finishing,” for the message to get through.  And, given the life-and-death nature of our jobs, I’m eternally grateful that he insisted.

Speaking of insistence, the next mentor I’m grateful to is John Dal Pino, whom I worked with when we were both at Degenkolb Engineers.  John insisted that I draw the dang rebar.  Every piece.  At full scale.  He had observed enough construction – and I hadn’t – to understand, for example, that a #11 needs a whole lot of space to make a 90° hook.

I haven’t drawn a lot of rebar lately, but there’s another lesson from John that I do use every day: that relationships are work – but well worth the effort.  My patience for small talk soared when I saw – and experienced – how it can help build rapport and lead to projects.

Finally I’ll recognize Ross Stein, a USGS scientist emeritus whom I’ve worked with more recently.  Ross challenges my left-brain engineer tendencies, emphasizing the power of story.  I find myself stunned at how he captivates an audience in minutes – sometimes seconds – whether a meeting of three or a TED talk of 1,000.  Telling stories is far from natural for me, but I’ve come to appreciate how narratives, and the emotions that go with them, is what people remember.

One interesting commonality among these mentors is that all of them are men.  It’s widely published that the need for professional mentors is especially strong among women.  But in no way does that exclude men from serving in this role.

Who have been your mentors?  What have you learned from them?