Lydia Kavraki, the Noah Harding Professor of Computer Science and Professor of Bioengineering at Rice University, has received the 2016 Presidential Award for Mentoring, an honor given to a Rice faculty member who demonstrates strong commitment to mentoring graduate or undergraduate students.
Kavraki believes it is impossible to separate mentoring from teaching. "I think it is very important to mentor students while you teach. Mentoring and teaching are not separate activities, it is one thing. And I enjoy it, I like it. I think I can make a difference for some people."
Kavraki's background spans continents. Born and educated in Greece, she graduated from the University of Crete, and then traveled to the United States to complete her Ph.D. at Stanford. She began teaching at Rice in 1997.
"I'm fortunate that I've had this position, that I've had varied experiences that enabled me to reach this point," said Kavraki, who believes these experiences have given her insights that some may find helpful. She is quick to credit her own mentors.
"Of course my family mentored me, my parents certainly did," she said. Her parents encouraged her to pursue computer science when she demonstrated an aptitude for it at a young age. "And Moshe Vardi has been a great mentor here at Rice. He convinced me to come to Rice when he was chair of the department. He set high standards but also provided guidance. Meeting those standards and expectations helped me grow."
When Kavraki considers what it means to mentor a student or colleague, she focuses on empowerment. "I believe mentoring is empowering people to do things, to find what is best for them and how they can be happy and productive," she said. "I don't tell them what to do, I guide and empower them to find out for themselves what they are good at and how to achieve their goals."
Vardi, the Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor for Computer Engineering and director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology at Rice, has used similar methods to empower Kavraki. "He has helped me both directly and indirectly along the way in many different instances. Moshe opens new directions of thinking and helps you discover things you have not thought about. Most importantly, Moshe helps you get to a place you didn't consider and didn't even think you could do."
Similarly, Kavraki empowers a wide range of Rice community members: undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, research scientists and faculty members.
She feels strongly about increasing the number of women in technical fields, and her casual rapport makes it easy for members of Rice's CS club for undergraduate women - the CSters - to talk with her about their concerns and challenges. "I have a good relationship with the women in the group," said Kavraki. "But Luay, Scott and Joe have done an amazing job at increasing the number of women in our department with their teaching efforts and style."
Luay Nakhleh, Scott Rixner and Joe Warren teach introductory COMP courses to hundreds of freshmen and sophomore students each year. Although the courses can be used to fill math requirements for other majors, the interesting subject matter, interactive learning methods, and the instructors' passion for the success of each of their students draws many non-CS majors into the program within a semester or two. Women comprise 34% of the declared CS majors at Rice, more than twice the national average.
Kavraki is also passionate about the research success of graduate students, ensuring they have presentation, publication and learning opportunities through various forums. Through her collaborative research projects, she makes every effort to connect her students with other researchers, organize exchange visits, and encourages them to actively participate in conferences. She has also been involved for many years with the Gulf Coast Consortia for Quantitative Biomedical Sciences. The GCC blends the strengths of seven institutions in the greater Houston region, and Kavraki is Rice's representative on the training arm of the GCC. There, she directs a training grant from the National Library of Medicine (NLM) of NIH that supports several Ph.D. and postdoctoral students across the GCC institutions.
She said, "By pairing students who are supported by NLM with two co-mentors who have complementary expertise, we foster partnerships across campus and in different institutions. This helps students grow their research potential as well as their professional relationships."
Faculty members also benefit from career and research guidance, and Kavraki has offered encouragement to young professors through two programs. She was involved with mentoring through the Rice NSF ADVANCE program, and is currently involved with mentoring through the Office of Faculty Development at Rice University