Buttressing perseverance from a distance

Alfredo Alexander-Katz and Caroline Jones honored as “Committed to Caring.”

Stressful transitions are endemic to graduate school. Professors Alfredo Alexander-Katz and Caroline Jones have been honored as “Committed to Caring” for reliably supporting students, and for helping them to endure and even thrive amidst difficulty.

Alfredo Alexander-Katz: Fortifying students

Alexander-Katz is an associate professor in MIT's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, where he leads the Laboratory for Soft Materials. The lab focuses on self-assembly and the dynamics of biological soft materials using a combination of analytical theory, simulations, and experiments.

In particular, the Alexander-Katz lab is working to design three dimensional self-assembled materials and new polymers for applications in energy and biological systems.

Physical distancing, social connectedness

When students are facing challenges, Alexander-Katz is understanding and generous with his time. In one instance, he worked weekly with a group of students who needed to retake their qualifying exams, helping them build confidence, solidify concepts, and improve their public speaking skills.

In their nomination letter, a student mentions a harrowing period in their life, as their mother went through terminal cancer. Alexander-Katz was incredibly supportive throughout this time and helped ensure the student could smoothly navigate graduate school while based with their mother. His active empathy for students aligns with a Mentoring Guidepost identified by the Committed to Caring program.

New group members have joined in the midst of the pandemic; they feel both included and celebrated by Alexander-Katz and other labmates. Writes one advisee, “I work remotely all the time but I feel I belong to the group,” which is “very supportive, friendly, and willing to help each other.” Alexander-Katz writes that what fulfills him is seeing his students succeed.

Compassionate advocacy

The pandemic has taken a significant toll on many students. When one student had a Covid-19 scare, Alexander-Katz “was constantly checking in … offering to drop off food if needed, and encouraging [the student] to relax and not worry” about work, acknowledging the stress of waiting on a test. This encouragement and support bolstered the student and helped ease their fear and uncertainty. Fortunately, the test was negative.

Alexander-Katz advocates for students at times when they are not fully able to advocate for themselves. His advisees emphasize how comfortable they are talking openly about their mental health with him. Writes one advisee, “During the past year in particular, [Alexander-Katz] has even gently and compassionately pointed out that I seem more stressed … and it has helped me get support.”

Above all, Alexander-Katz prioritizes the well-being of his students. Daily, writes one nominator, he "encourages us to get enough rest, exercise, and healthy [meals] to be productive at our jobs and happy in our lives."

Caroline Jones: Adaptive expectations

Caroline Jones is a professor in the History, Theory, Criticism (HTC) section of MIT's Department of Architecture. Jones studies modern and contemporary art, focusing on its technological modes of production, distribution, and reception.

Before completing her PhD at Stanford University, Jones curated exhibits and worked in museum administration at New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Harvard University Art Museums.

Dedicating time, optimizing time

Jones is thoughtful with her time and attention. HTC students can write papers that are 50 to 75 pages long. Nevertheless, Jones “responds to every draft with keen remarks throughout.” Her “infectious enthusiasm and rigor” inspire graduate students in their commitment to, and interest in, their studies.

When work and life blur together — amplified for many during the pandemic — both effective working time and true breaks can be elusive. Jones tries to guide students in separating the two by offering her approach: “recognize when you work best and optimize that time, without dithering.” This allows students to take clear breaks “to be in nature or with family, which is crucial to your well-being.”

Adaptability is essential in the PhD process, for both students and faculty. In considering how dissertations have shifted over the course of the pandemic, Jones encourages students to "keep the deadline, but lower the expectation.” Being understanding and realistic about what is achievable is crucial “when your archive just [closed] or you can’t leave your apartment.” As Jones regularly reminds students: “The only good dissertation is a done dissertation.”

Transparency with hurdles

Being a transparent role model is critical, according to Jones. She is open about the resources and people that have supported her throughout her career as well as the challenges she has encountered. Jones works to introduce women and first-generation students to some of the unspoken norms of academia, helping them learn how to navigate uncomfortable and hostile questions, publish articles, and understand what to expect during academic job searches. Teaching the informal rules of academia is a Mentoring Guidepost identified by the Committed to Caring program.

In graduate school, Jones faced two concurrent serious stressors: the novelty and challenge of being a young parent while simultaneously undergoing chemotherapy. For Jones, “dissertation work became a place of quiet solace and joy” and she reflects on the intentionality with which she crafted breaks with family, finding “time to cherish each other in the midst of the chaos.”

Many graduate students also face significant personal trials over the course of their studies. One nominator reflects with gratitude on support from Jones after a stunning loss: “Dr. Jones rallied the entire faculty and staff and my family, and I received more flowers and cards from MIT than any other source (even close family!).” For Jones, if students experience “a loss or a blow, simple compassion and listening are crucial.”

More on Committed to Caring (C2C)

The Committed to Caring (C2C) program is an initiative of the Office of Graduate Education and contributes to its mission of making graduate education at MIT “empowering, exciting, holistic, and transformative.”

Since 2014, C2C has invited graduate students from across MIT’s campus to nominate professors whom they believe to be outstanding mentors. Selection criteria for the honor include the scope and reach of advisor impact on graduate students’ experience, excellence in scholarship, and demonstrated commitment to diversity and inclusion.

The most recent outgrowth in 2019 took the form of a Faculty Peer Mentorship Program, in which C2C faculty act as peer mentors to incoming MIT professors. The program provides one-to-one matches with the goal of fostering strong mentorship practices and providing a network of support.  

By recognizing the human element of graduate education, C2C seeks to encourage excellent advising and mentorship across MIT’s campus.