Mentoring graduate students is an essential component of the mission of a research institution such as UC Santa Barbara. For faculty, mentoring involves training graduate students for careers in academia and industry and preparing them to meet the highest ethical and professional standards. Chemical engineering professor M. Scott Shell is one of three faculty members selected by UCSB’s Academic Senate to receive a 2021-‘22 Outstanding Graduate Mentor Award in recognition of exemplary contributions to mentoring. Recipients were chosen from a pool of nominations submitted by current graduate students, recent alumni, and colleagues.
“This is such an incredible honor because it stems from the support of colleagues and especially students, current and past,” said Shell, the John Myers Founder’s Chair in Chemical Engineering and the department’s vice chair for graduate education. “We don’t frequently receive feedback from students on how we are doing as mentors, or even from other colleagues, and so to receive this award based on such positive experiences is amazingly affirming and heartening.”
Shell says that his goal as a mentor is to guide his graduate students to becoming innovative, creative, and kind scientists.
“I tell all my students that my role isn’t to teach them how to answer questions, but how to ask good and important questions,” said Shell, who previously received a Distinguished Teaching Award from the Academic Senate. “As such, my approach to mentoring a PhD student involves several subprojects that increasingly push them toward increasing intellectual leadership and expose them to different types of problems and skillsets.”
Shell says that this style of mentoring emphasizes independence and requires a commitment to providing honest but supportive feedback on student ideas, to be available for regular individual interactions, and to connect students to opportunities via collaborators, centers, conferences, and meetings.
“In my group, I aim to cultivate a spirit of excitement about the science, and a sense of partnership and collective support to try new directions or approaches, and to use crosstalk to spark creativity,” he explained. “Indeed, this is also the kind of team environment that makes me continually excited about the science!”
Upon joining the faculty in 2007, Shell organized the inaugural ChE Graduate Student Symposium, which has become the department’s biggest annual event and brings in numerous guests from industry and academia. He has also regularly spoken to undergraduate students involved in the Materials Research Laboratory and the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships (CSEP) on how to give successful presentations. Shell says that, over the years, it has become increasingly important to him to create a supportive environment for students, both scientifically and socially, and at the group, department, and campus levels. As Graduate Vice Chair of his department, he implemented annual surveys and town hall meetings to strengthen communication with students, support the department’s Graduate Student Association, and solicit feedback that spurs improvements to the department’s graduate program, such as creating diversity training and a formal training program in technical writing for first-year students, and holistic admissions training for faculty.
The Shell research group develops novel molecular simulation, multiscale modeling, and statistical thermodynamic approaches to address problems in contemporary biophysics and soft condensed matter. Recent areas of interest include protein self-assembly and aggregation, protein engineering, peptoids materials, hydrophobic interactions and interfaces, water purification membranes, and complex polymer formulations. Shell has advised twenty-one PhD students, two postdoctoral researchers, and twenty-six undergraduate researchers. He has also served on the PhD committees of more than seventy PhD students.
One of his current PhD students described Shell as “exceptional in his dedication to his students” and “great at guiding student development.” The student submitted a letter of support submitted to the Academic Senate and wrote that Shell focuses on students’ building a foundation of understanding and not just conveying a set of information.
“Throughout my PhD, he has been mindful of making sure I build a solid set of research skills, encouraging me to diversify my projects. At the same time, he has been receptive and enthusiastic about new research directions that I suggest,” the student wrote. “It is a privilege for me to be able to share my admiration for such a tremendous mentor who has been key to my success and well-being at UCSB.”
A former student who completed his PhD at UCSB believes that Shell’s commitment to the broad growth of graduate students, both within and outside of research, is intimately connected to his desire to foster an inclusive and respectful culture. In their letter of support, the alumnus said that their “proudest moment” was hearing Shell deliver a featured talk upon receiving the Computational Molecular Science and Engineering Forum (COMSEF) Impact Award during the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Annual Conference. The student wrote that Shell used the first half of his talk to describe his group’s cutting-edge research but broke from the conference’s tradition in the second half of the talk.
“He chose to discuss diversity and inclusivity, providing guidance on how to actively support these ideals. The room was packed with both faculty and graduate students, and his actionable suggestions were directed at everyone,” the alumnus wrote to the awards committee. “I know that he impacted many graduate students that day — they told me so right after the talk — and I realized how fortunate I was to learn from him daily. This revealed one of the most important aspects of his mentorship: his service as an excellent role model.”
Feedback like those provided by his former and current students further illustrate the important role that faculty mentors play in the development and success of graduate students at UCSB.
“The most meaningful part of my legacy won’t be all the papers published, but the students I impact,” said Shell. “One of the most fulfilling aspects of this job is the ability to help students grow into independent scientists while at UCSB, and then to see how they evolve in their careers and achieve entirely new successes after they graduate. And, more broadly, to see how they mature into kind, respectful, socially responsible, and thoughtful people.”