In recognition of the pivotal role that mentors play in supporting undergraduate research and creative activity, the Office of Undergraduate Research is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2022 Mentorship Excellence Awards. These awards recognize two faculty members – one in a STEM field, and one in a non-STEM field – and one graduate student who exemplify the ways in which outstanding mentors challenge and support their students, enabling them to take intellectual risks and achieve milestones they might not have initially envisioned being able to reach.
Please join us in congratulating Jason Oliver Chang, Sarah Knutie, and Mia Kawaida on their selection as this year’s Mentorship Excellence Award recipients. The awards were presented on Friday, April 8, 2022 during the 25th annual Frontiers in Undergraduate Research Poster Exhibition.
Jason Oliver Chang, Associate Professor, History and Asian American Studies
Professor Chang was nominated by Karen Lau ’25 (CLAS). The following text is excerpted from Karen’s nomination.
During my freshman year, I took Dr. Chang’s Asian American Experience Since 1850 course and became his mentee. He encouraged me to join Make Us Visible CT, a group of educators and students working together to advocate for the development and implementation of Asian American studies curricula in public schools across multiple states. Through Make Us Visible, I worked with fellow students to collect data on the demographics of public school districts, Boards of Education, and Directors of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Connecticut. As a young, Asian American woman, I have seldom seen myself represented by my educators’ experiences or cultures. Dr. Chang’s teaching has opened my eyes to beautiful aspects of my family’s immigration history, culture, heritage, and identity that I have been blind to in the past.
Currently, Dr. Chang and I are working with the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity & Opportunity to create a first-of-its-kind political opinion survey for Asian American Connecticut residents. Throughout the creation of this survey, Dr. Chang has taught me about building large-scale surveys and ethical data collection. He motivated me to draft questions about accessibility, civic engagement, political opinions, and the impact of COVID-19. Dr. Chang’s vision of uplifting Asian residents of Connecticut has been extremely inspiring.
Dr. Chang inspired me to be unafraid of the unknown, to dig deeper to learn about my home state’s impact on Asian Americans, and to be bolder in my advocacy in education reform. He frequently made space for me to ask questions, provide my ideas and insight, and empowered me to collaborate with historians and cultural anthropologists. At a time when I struggled with separating my identity from being a student the most, Dr. Chang taught me that I am much more than a student; in fact, I am capable of changing the education landscape and battling inequities that my generation faces. Dr. Chang is never discouraging or doubtful of his students’ abilities to conduct research in history. He works with students to achieve their academic and social goals, whether that may be lobbying the CT General Assembly to pass ethnic studies legislation or creating a curriculum about power and colonialism. His extraordinary compassion for his students, his commitment to increasing the visibility of students of color, and his fierce advocacy for policies that benefit marginalized students and educators have benefited me immensely. Without any doubt, Dr. Chang’s mentorship has been the most empowering aspect of my college experience at UConn.
Sarah Knutie, Assistant Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
Professor Knutie was nominated by Mahima Mehta ’22 (CLAS). The following text is excerpted from Mahima’s nomination.
Science and research touch all aspects of our lives. Up until my sophomore year of college, I had a very skewed view of it all – I knew it existed, but I didn’t know to what extent and completely believed it was not something for someone like me. Upon my first conversation with Dr. Sarah Knutie, I was amazed by the questions she was investigating and could clearly see myself working in her lab. When I became a member of the Nest Parasite Community Science Project, this was my first exposure to research and I found myself nervous. I didn’t know what to expect and was afraid I wouldn’t do well. I quickly realized how silly these fears were as Dr. Knutie supported and encouraged me to ask questions to clarify and better understand the various topics being investigated.
The largest lesson, and most important lesson, Dr. Knutie has taught me is the importance of asking questions. It is rather easy to feel, as an undergraduate student, that the questions we have may be “dumb.” Dr. Knutie made a conscious effort to squash that misconception and taught me asking questions is the basis of research and science. When I joined her lab, Dr. Knutie encouraged me to keep a notebook of things I noticed and wondered. We revisited that notebook a year later and I had developed pages of trends and questions, some of which had the potential to be studied in my remaining time as an undergraduate student. Dr. Knutie suggested I choose the question that most interested me to pursue as an independent research project. As someone who has always been interested in the effects of climate change, I developed a project that focused on that and applied for an IDEA Grant. She helped me every step of the way, reminding me that no question is a bad question and that she was there to guide me through the process.
Outstanding mentors not only lead by example, but also provide opportunities for their mentees to learn through experience. After participating in the Nest Parasite Community Science Project for a year, I became the lead undergraduate on the project – my first time leading anything this big. Despite Dr. Knutie being at her long-term study site in the Galápagos, she has made sure to always be available to me when I need her, and has even gone as far as to set up weekly meetings to discuss that project, my IDEA Grant project, and work on presenting research in a poster and manuscript. I joined the lab without having the slightest idea of the opportunities that research may come with, and now I am working on my very own manuscript and coauthoring another. This is incredibly exciting as it makes the broader impact of the study more tangible. A large part of Dr. Knutie’s research focuses on scientific communication and making the questions we investigate digestible to the public. She has shown me the importance of making science accessible to everyone.
Dr. Knutie exemplifies excellence in mentorship because of the unique sense of purpose, importance, and passion she enables us to find in ourselves. The members of the Knutie Lab agree that she truly wants us all to succeed. Dr. Knutie has been my biggest supporter and inspiration and I am incredibly grateful for her encouragement in all of my passions.
Mia Kawaida, Ph.D. Student, Animal Science
Mia was nominated by Vianna Bassani ’23 (CAHNR). The following text is excerpted from Vianna’s nomination.
Beginning undergraduate research, I did not know what to expect, as I had never participated in anything like this before. I was nervous to work with graduate students and PI’s knowing I had such limited experience. Meeting Mia through Dr. Reed’s lab relieved these nerves and has helped me be where I am today. Mia was always so caring and welcoming from the start. She helped me understand basic laboratory techniques and worked closely with me to help me actually understand what I was doing, instead of just going through the motions.
When I first started the lab work for my project, Mia and I sat down together and went through my assay kit. We read every word of the manual together, did every step together, and spent 7 hours together in one day to get it done, just to find out that we would not be able to use the data and would have to redo everything. While I was disappointed with the result, Mia took this so-called failure and turned it into a positive learning experience that science is not always easy or perfect but it is messy, and that is what makes science, science, as our PI Dr. Reed would say.
This year, I really feel like I have gained an appreciation for research, and this comes in part from working with Mia. She is patient, knowledgeable, and dedicated to the field, and these are the reasons I look up to her when completing my own research project now. From spending time practicing pipetting to hours working on my own assays, Mia has been there to support me and provide me with assistance, including answering the infinite questions that arise. It is important to mention that Mia’s PhD project does not even include the sheep research, however, you would never know because she is 100% dedicated to the project and leads with ease. Through working closely with Mia inside the lab, she is one of the reasons I was given the privilege of becoming a shift leader for feeding and checking the research sheep, lambs, and calves. This opportunity not only gave me the confidence to feel like I belonged in the lab and field of research, but that I was also provided with hands-on experience and leadership skills that I know are positively contributing to my future career goals. As I continue in research through my undergraduate career, I will continue to appreciate the kindness, organization, ethical care for the research animals, and mentorship that Mia embodies.
Congratulations to the 2022 award recipients! The Office of Undergraduate Research thanks the undergraduate students who nominated their faculty and graduate student mentors as well as the Peer Research Ambassadors who served on this year’s selection committee.