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Read, Govindaraju receive grad student mentoring award

By SUE WUETCHER

Published January 6, 2017

Jennifer Read and Venu Govindaraju are the recipients of the 2016-17 Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring Award, presented by the Graduate School to recognize UB faculty for their support and development of graduate students through their mentoring activities. 

The award, established in 2012, is given annually to members of the graduate faculty who have demonstrated “truly outstanding and sustained support and development of graduate students from course completion through research and subsequent career placement.”

Read, professor and director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology, was nominated for the award by her department chair, Stephen T. Tiffany, professor of psychology. Govindaraju, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, and vice president for research and economic development, was nominated by Liesl Folks, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Read will be UB’s nominee for the Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award sponsored by the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools (NAGS). The Marshall award will be presented at NAGS’ annual meeting in April.

Jennifer Read

In his letter nominating Read for the award, Tiffany noted that over the years he has observed many outstanding graduate mentors, both at UB and at other institutions. “Without question, Jen Read is the best graduate mentor I have known,” he wrote.

Read, he said, “exhibits all the hallmarks of excellent mentorship.” She is a productive and influential scholar — with 41 peer-reviewed articles published from 2011-15, and more than 4,200 citations over the past five years — and her students have adopted “the same commitment to quality science and publication,” he wrote. Her PhD students leave UB with multiple publications, and she works closely with them to obtain funding for their research, he added.

Tiffany wrote that Read is committed to promoting her students’ professional development, asking them to join her when she reviews papers for journals, pushing them to obtain additional training and attend workshops, and taking them with her to scientific meetings to present their posters and talks.

And while many faculty members attend meetings with their students, “I have rarely seen anyone as diligent at promoting their students at these meetings as Jen Read,” he wrote.

Moreover, Read sets up special clinical opportunities “to augment students’ clinical training and puts in extra time (as an overload) to provide supervision at those settings,” he wrote.

“When I travel to other universities or to professional meetings and see our former students, I am invariably asked about Jen Read, and these students tell me how important Jen was in their lives.”

Tiffany pointed to a line from a letter a student had written in support of Read’s nomination: “Jen says to us, ‘I work hard for you, you work hard for you, you work hard for me, and we work hard for each other.’

“And that perfectly captures Jen Read’s philosophy about graduate mentoring,” he wrote.

A UB faculty member since 2003, Read’s research focuses on the individual and environmental factors that influence heavy and problematic substance use in young adults, among them personality, gender, affective state, cognitions and social influences.

Much of her work has focused on trauma and post-traumatic stress, and how they may influence or be influenced by substance use, particularly in young adults. She has conducted a number of longitudinal survey studies of these associations, and also has examined these pathways in laboratory experiments. Her research has been supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the American Medical Beverage Foundation.

Venu Govindaraju

In her letter nominating Govindaraju for the mentoring award, Folks noted she has co-mentored students with Govindaraju, which has enabled her “to witness firsthand Venu’s excellent mentorship in the realms of both scholarly preparation and professional development.” Moreover, she said she has heard of his mentorship abilities directly from his former students during UB alumni events in Silicon Valley, where many of his students now work.

Folks wrote that during Govindaraju’s more than two decades on the UB faculty, he has supervised 35 PhD students, “a remarkable record with not many parallels within the university.” These students, she said, have gone on to hold tenure-track faculty positions at universities in the U.S. and abroad, as well as positions at Fortune 500 companies and “path-breaking startups,” among them IBM, Qualcomm, eBay and Amazon.

Govindaraju goes out of his way to create opportunities for his students, Folks wrote, reaching out to admissions advisers for master’s students applying to highly ranked PhD programs and facilitating internship placements for students by actively tapping his vast professional network at top tech companies.

“It is a testimony to his mentorship that almost every one of the students in his lab has been able to secure summer internship placements routinely,” she wrote.

He has “an uncanny knack of being able to identify latent qualities, to inspire and instill self-belief and confidence, and to bring out the best in his students,” she said.

Folks said Govindaraju enthusiastically nominates his students for UB and external student awards, encourages his students to submit papers as first authors and supports his students financially to attend international conferences.

And even though students have graduated, Govindaraju continues to mentor them as they establish careers in academia and industry “by providing them sound career advice and assistance in achieving greater success in their life pursuits,” she wrote.

Folks pointed to the numerous letters submitted by his students in support of his nomination as a “testament to the high regard and affection that they have for him as a mentor.”

A native of India who came to UB in the late 1980s as a graduate student, Govindaraju is an internationally renowned expert in machine learning, pattern recognition and biometrics. He has been principal investigator or co-principal investigator on nearly $70 million in research funding from federal, state and industry sources, and has authored or co-authored more than 400 refereed publications.

His seminal work in handwriting recognition was at the core of the first, field-deployable, real-time system for reading handwritten addresses on mail pieces. The system, developed by Govindaraju and UB colleagues, resulted in annual savings of hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. Postal Service. The technology also was transferred to the Royal Mail in the United Kingdom and Australia Post.

Govindaraju also was among the first researchers to explore human-like handwriting for designing CAPTCHAs — the computer test that requires users to type letters of a distorted image in a box to access content — to exploit the differential in handwriting-reading proficiency between humans and machines.

Read and Govindaraju will be recognized at the annual Celebration of Faculty/Staff Excellence to be held during the fall 2017 semester.