Undeterred by the pandemic, professors Gigliola Staffilani and Daron Acemoglu persist in ensuring their students have fulfilling graduate school experiences. The two have been honored as “Committed to Caring” for their dedicated advocacy and for connecting students with wider intellectual communities.
Daron Acemoglu: Celebrating potential
Daron Acemoglu is an MIT Institute Professor of Economics. His research delves into political economy, economic development and growth, human capital theory, growth theory, innovation, search theory, network economics, and learning. Recently, he has focused on the political, economic, and social causes of differences in economic development across societies; the factors affecting the institutional and political evolution of nations; and how technology impacts growth and the distribution of resources, and is itself determined by economic and social incentives. Acemoglu has received a wealth of awards, including the 2005 John Bates Clark Medal, which is awarded biannually to the best economist under age 40 in the United States.
All students can thrive and excel, in Acemoglu’s view. According to student nominators, Acemoglu is “stunningly nonjudgmental,” and his appraisal of students is “dynamic.” That is, he demonstrates confidence that “any student can do the best research” and all can “contribute meaningfully to the field.”
Cultivating healthy judgment of one’s own work can prove difficult. Acemoglu helps students learn to evaluate both the strengths and weaknesses of their research. Typically, he finds this plays out as “emphasizing to the students that they are achieving much more than they are giving themselves credit for.” To Acemoglu, accurate appraisal and learning to strengthen arguments are the key skills in being a researcher.
Acemoglu’s presence in the department is warm and thoughtful. One nominator comments that Acemoglu “sits at the edge of his seat in every graduate student lunch, no matter the presenter or the stage of work, and devotes his mind to think[ing] about constructive advice that will improve it.”
Students touch on the alienation that graduate school can engender in celebrating Acemoglu’s support. One nominator writes that Acemoglu’s caring permeates the department and greatly improves the day-to-day experience.
Acemoglu’s compassion is vital to students amidst trying circumstances. Another student commented, “Daron's unwavering support was probably the only thing that helped me to maintain focus on my work, perspective in my life, and dignity.”
Developing a strong social support network, both professional and personal, is essential, according to Acemoglu. He encourages students and supports them in building connections with their classmates, describing these ties as “invaluable” both during and after graduate school.
Foregrounding his values in interactions with students, Acemoglu makes clear to them that integrity, public service, and balance matter more than narrow definitions of professional success. In turn, Acemoglu’s students feel empowered and embed kindness in the research group culture.
Gigliola Staffilani: Convening communities
Staffilani is the Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Mathematics at MIT. She has previously held positions at Princeton, Stanford, and Brown universities, with tenure at the latter two. Staffilani is a mathematical analyst; her research focuses on dispersive nonlinear partial differential equations. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Staffilani is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship and a Simmons Fellowship as well as teaching and advising awards from MIT and Stanford.
A caring equilibrium
When reflecting on her growth as a mentor, Staffilani notes the distinction between being a “mentor/advisor/sponsor” and a “therapist/parent/friend.” Ensuring she fell into the former category was initially challenging. Through years of experience and reflection, she has become skilled at achieving this balance of compassion and support with clear boundaries.
One student nominator recalls suffering from self-doubt as well as unresolved friction with their first graduate advisor. The student approached Staffilani, who took them on as a mentee partway through graduate school. In a nomination letter, the student describes Staffilani’s “compassion and empathy” as well as the “countless times” she reassured the student about their competence. Believing in students and their capabilities is a Mentoring Guidepost identified by the Committed to Caring (C2C) program.
Mental health is a priority for Staffilani. She notes that mathematics research can be lonely and frustrating at times. Accordingly, Staffilani encourages her students to connect via reading groups and dinners, and she has obtained funding to support these gatherings.
Encouraging diverse pathways
Many students fear that faculty will think less of them should they choose not to continue in academia. Not so for Staffilani’s advisees. Staffilani makes clear that choosing to remain in academia in pure math means opting for a very specific lifestyle, one that requires enjoying “spending endless hours on a problem that is hard to solve.” She demonstrates that she values multiple career pathways, according to student nominators, and is dedicated to helping students achieve their dreams, wherever they may lie.
Indeed, Staffilani organizes monthly Women in Mathematics lunches where she brings in women who use math in their careers, some from outside academia. Staffilani also chairs a committee in the department focused on community building and inclusivity.
Staffilani highlights the emergence of mentorship as a priority over her time in academia. She describes her advisor as “ahead of his time” in recognizing the value of mentorship, helping to instill these patterns in her.
Staffilani thinks a graduate student “deserves to be happy and not intellectually stressed out all the time.” Further, culturing aptitude for mentorship is important, as a graduate student “may be an advisor later on in life and needs to understand how to recognize talent in unpredictable places and nurture it.”
More on Committed to Caring
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 (FPMP) 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.