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Faithfully supporting well-being

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, Jinhua Zhao, and Kamal Youcef-Toumi honored as “Committed to Caring.”
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From L to R: Zuckerman Sivan, Zhao, and Youcef-Toumi join previous recipients in lifting up students in ways that have been tremendously impactful.
From L to R: Zuckerman Sivan, Zhao, and Youcef-Toumi join previous recipients in lifting up students in ways that have been tremendously impactful.
Photos: Joseph Lee

Professors Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, Jinhua Zhao, and Kamal Youcef-Toumi have been honored as “Committed to Caring” for the manifold ways they build balance and community among their advisees. These practices have given them a strong foundation from which their research groups cope with the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic. Zuckerman Sivan, Zhao, and Youcef-Toumi join previous recipients in lifting up students in ways that have been tremendously impactful.

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan: Cultivating play 

Professor Zuckerman Sivan is dedicated to helping students find spaces to “play with ideas for their own sake, for the love of knowledge.” As he notes, this will result in better work — “and you will be happier, too.” 

Zuckerman Sivan has been proactive in reaching out to students in the midst of the pandemic, checking on them and their loved ones. His group has introduced dedicated community meetings that he describes as “meaningful and therapeutic” for both himself and, hopefully, for students. In particular, Zuckerman Sivan has open conversations where he is “candid about what we know and don’t know about the repercussions of the pandemic on the students’ careers.” Such brave conversations can be pivotal amid the current stress and uncertainty.

Ezra Zuckerman Sivan is the deputy dean of the Sloan School of Management as well as the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at Sloan. Zuckerman Sivan is an economic sociologist whose research focuses on showing how an understanding of fundamental social processes is important for shedding light on key issues in business and management, as well as how an appreciation for the dynamics of business and management inform our understanding of fundamental social processes.

Zuckerman Sivan actively promotes balance for his students and himself. Observing Judaism with his family is important to Zuckerman Sivan. He holds the Sabbath and holidays sacred, in lieu of attending work events. Zuckerman Sivan says, “I hope the fact that I do this, and am doing fine professionally nonetheless, sends a signal that while our work is important, there are more important things and we need … balance.

Accordingly, Zuckerman Sivan’s advising focuses on the whole student. One student nominator recalls Zuckerman Sivan swiftly providing support upon learning of a health condition: “He called me right away, asked about my [condition], and told me that it is not surprising that I get tremendous stress from my status, sincerely [insisting] that my health should be prioritized over everything.” Checking in with students proactively is a mentoring guidepost defined by the Committed to Caring (C2C) program.

Students are grateful for Zuckerman Sivan’s commitment to building their strengths as well as focusing on the development and practice of skills. Most of all, writes one student nominator, “I see [Zuckerman Sivan’s] belief … that I can make it in the end, and he would keep teaching and encouraging me until [that] day.”  

Jinhua Zhao: Empowering and motivating 

Despite innumerable responsibilities, Professor Jinhua Zhao shows up for his students with “unbounded energy.” That, according to student nominators, is what enables him to advise “each of his students in a personally meaningful way.”

Zhao has invested some of this energy in building a laboratory ethos he describes as “flourishing individuals and sharing and caring teams.” This interconnectedness supports resilience during a crisis. Lab members reach out regularly to bolster each other’s well-being and have come together to organize a local town hall, in addition to other virtual interactions where “dialectic discourses continue.”

As the Edward and Joyce Linde Associate Professor of City and Transportation Planning at MIT, Zhao founded and directs the JTL Urban Mobility Lab. He brings behavioral science and transportation technology together to shape travel behavior, design mobility systems, and reform urban policies. Zhao develops methods to sense, predict, nudge, and regulate travel behavior; designs multimodal systems that integrate autonomous and shared vehicles with public transportation; and reforms urban policies to govern new technologies and business models.

Multidisciplinarity and inclusive diversity are attributes Zhao works hard to develop in the Urban Mobility Lab. In under seven years at MIT, Zhao has advised nine PhD students and 37 master’s students from three programs: Urban Studies and Planning; the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society; and Civil and Environmental Engineering. Additionally, he has supervised nine postdocs, four of whom have gone on to become assistant professors.

Per a student nominator, Zhao “openly values his time with his family and encourages his students to invest in both their studies and their personal well-being.” Another student comments that Zhao’s “attention to his students as human beings, and not just worker bees … struck me as truly exemplary.” Support for work-life balance is a C2C mentoring guidepost.

Empowering the students in his lab is critical to Zhao’s approach. He describes the lab as an effective and communal workspace “where students feel at home, learn from each other, and increasingly self-govern.”

Students attest that Zhao’s receipt of the Committed to Caring honor is well-deserved. “Jinhua is inquisitive, open-minded, brilliantly critical, and yet kind.” 

Kamal Youcef-Toumi: Building an empathetic community

Developing an “open and respectful bond” with each member of his lab is paramount to Youcef-Toumi.

Professor Youcef-Toumi joined the MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering faculty in 1985. He is the director of the Mechatronics Research Laboratory and the Ibn Khaldun Fellowship, which is awarded to Saudi Arabian women, as well as co-director of the Center for Complex Engineering Systems. Youcef-Toumi's research has focused primarily on design, control theory, and their applications to dynamic systems. Applications have included manufacturing, robotics, automation, metrology, and nanoscale video imaging.

Students and colleagues consistently describe Youcef-Toumi as deeply empathetic and kind. He always asks after students’ well-being and is encouraging about triumphs, and is ready to lend support with “words of wisdom born of experience … [and] genuine, thoughtful concern” amid struggle.

Graduate school is often a trying experience. “The struggles and stresses come in many forms such as lack of sleep, isolation, emotional ups and downs, intrapersonal and interpersonal conflicts, uncertainty in funding, time management, and much more,” writes Youcef-Toumi. This ability to empathize with students’ experiences and perspectives is a mentoring guidepost.

Youcef-Toumi seeks to cultivate supportive relationships between all members of his laboratory, not only in his direct mentoring relationships. He often sets up teams of students in the lab, so they can extend the pattern of caring.

Emphasizing communication and team-building skills alongside the technical, Youcef-Toumi is generous with his time helping students practice these concepts. One student recalls an outpouring of support upon asking for help refining their writing: Youcef-Toumi “sat down with me for two hours every day, 11 days in a row, going through my thesis line by line.”

Truly, as one nominator noted, “Kamal is a gift to MIT, the students, and the general world at large.” 

The Committed to Caring 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.”

C2C invites 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.

By recognizing the human element of graduate education, C2C seeks to encourage excellent advising and mentorship across MIT’s campus. More information about these and other C2C honorees and their advising practices may be found on the Committed to Caring pages.

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