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Powerful pairs

By Nicole Sweeney Etter & Stephen Filmanowicz

Every grad student should have one; a lucky few might have two or three. A mentor can challenge you, open new doors and keep you on track so you don’t slip into that dreaded chasm known as ABD (all but dissertation). And for faculty, the right mentee can offer a fresh perspective and a welcome set of hands.

Mentoring benefits everyone

Jennifer Ohlendorf, Nurs ’00, is pursuing her Ph.D. in part because of Associate Professor of Nursing Marianne Weiss’ influence when Ohlendorf was still an undergraduate. An independent study as Weiss’ research assistant then whet Ohlendorf’s appetite for research, inspiring her to get her master’s and then return to Marquette for her doctorate in nursing.

The women share a passion for maternal/neonatal care. Ohlendorf is focusing her dissertation on postpartum weight management.

“Women who don’t return to their pre-pregnancy weight within a year are much more likely to be overweight or obese later in life,” explains Ohlendorf, who has research funding from Sigma Theta Tau International. “And those women are also more likely to have complications like diabetes or hypertension.”

Ohlendorf describes mentoring as an iterative process, a constant back and forth that drives the work to new heights.

“I think the important thing for faculty is seeing students grow and change,” Weiss says. “But I think what happens along the way is our work grows and changes, too. The best mentoring relationships benefit everybody.”

Sometimes it happens in concrete ways, like when Weiss gave Ohlendorf some data from her study to analyze. Ohlendorf became the lead author on the resulting paper, which has been accepted for publication in the American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing. Ohlendorf’s work is now contributing to a grant application for further funding of their postpartum weight self-management research.

Ohlendorf also benefits from her professor’s high expectations, constructive criticism and connections in the field.

“She’s going to carve out her own piece of the puzzle,” Weiss says. “She’s asking different questions and asking them in different ways, but it’s trying to grow that whole body of work that we’ll continue to do together and in parallel even after graduation.”

Pushing and providing a safety net

As a doctoral student working in Marquette’s pace-setting Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Engineering Center, Tamara Cohen is receiving expert biomedical engineering instruction and making progress on her dissertation. But she is also undergoing a deeper personal transformation  from promising student mastering existing knowledge to seasoned researcher designing protocols that may lead to scientific discoveries.

Because this maturation process can’t be spoon-fed, Professor of Biomedical Engineering Gerald Harris’ job as her adviser sometimes resembles that of a coach preparing a gymnast for the Olympics, equipping her with needed technical skills and tools, then supporting her with a safety net as she performs feats that can only be tackled independently.    

“You give talented students open-ended challenges,” explains Harris, “but you also have to be ready to assist at the right point so they don’t become totally frustrated, so they learn from the experience.”

Just two years into her doctoral program, Cohen found herself responsible for a serious research project  an assessment of the mechanical behavior of various casting materials used to correct clubfoot deformity in children. It was complicated, interdisciplinary work “looking at questions that nobody had ever asked before about longer term effects, pain and function,” says Harris.

This mentoring approach is also practical. Overseeing a federally funded $4.75 million cluster of projects addressing the needs of children with orthopaedic disabilities, plus other projects, Harris splits his time between Marquette, the Medical College of Wisconsin and Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago. “Dr. Harris is a very knowledgeable, very busy man,” Cohen observes. “When he’s here, we have to make good use of his time.”

Now in her fourth year, Cohen has flourished, producing “recommendations that will help clinicians treat clubfoot more effectively” and embarking on a tissue characterization project that “takes clubfoot treatment to the next level,” says her mentor.

Offering that essential ear

Dr. John Curran, an accomplished scholar of Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers, describes the challenges of dissertation-writing in somewhat haunting terms. “It’s isolating. It’s idiosyncratic. There’s no template to use because the process of writing a dissertation is never the same for any two people,” says the professor of English.

His advisee and doctoral student, Denna Iammarino, compares the process, despite its joys, to surviving a grueling boxing match. “Sometimes you’re both the perpetrator and victim of a violent situation,” she jokes.

In the eyes of her mentor, Iammarino falls somewhere between those students who whiz through their dissertations and those who get bogged down under the pressure to produce an original scholarly work. “She works hard, but she’s a down-to-earth person,” Curran says. “She can under-estimate the contemplative and intellectual part of herself. Sometimes she needs a confidence boost.”

Curran’s mentorship was often long distance because fellowships and family circumstances kept Iammarino out of state for several of her six doctoral years. Still, their countless conversations were essential to the progress she made in writing her dissertation and successfully defending it in December. Her topic was Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser’s use of interpretive models descended from theologians St. Augustine and Richard Hooker in communicating with readers of Spenser’s day. Iammarino admits: “I can’t tell you how many times I called him and asked, ‘Am I just an idiot? Is this idea just never going to work?’”

For Iammarino, sometimes Curran’s optimism for an idea helped it develop. “I’d say, ‘Well, if Dr. Curran says this is worthwhile, then it could really be worth pursuing.’”

Exploration and conversation

Some twists, turns and derailments. That’s how Dave Brinker, Comm ’09 and a communication master’s student, and Dr. Erik Ugland describe their research partnership. And even though their collaboration, which started when Brinker was an undergraduate, hasn’t led to a jointly published work yet, they’re OK with that.

“To do good research, there’s value in exploring all the related areas,” Brinker says. “Expertise isn’t built on the back of published articles. It’s built on dead ends and side avenues.”

Both are interested in media law and policy, and together they’ve studied “payola” practices in the media and the policies of the Federal Communications Commission, among other topics. At times their projects shifted when they searched for a unique angle or when life circumstances just put research on hold.

Ugland, an associate professor of broadcast and electronic communication, says their weekly meetings feel more like conversations between colleagues. “We can each serve as sounding boards for each other, and we can critique and weigh in on each other’s projects in addition to collaborating on our joint projects,” Ugland says.

Their conversations led Brinker to his still-developing thesis idea. “We were talking about this media critique that the media doesn’t sufficiently serve citizens,” Brinker says. “I’m interested in looking at how citizens would use the mass media in an ideal media landscape.”

Ugland’s first question is usually, “What are you thinking about?” Even as an undergraduate, Brinker appreciated his professor’s ability to find the nugget of a good idea in unlikely places.

“Even though he’s a lawyer and a true academic, he doesn’t make students feel like they should be shy about sharing their ideas because he finds ways to guide your ideas even if they’re underdeveloped,” Brinker says.


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