Exemplary teacher and undergraduate research mentor
Apr 18, 2017 | Atlanta
Flavio H. Fenton has two good reasons to be flashing a wide smile these days. He’s a double winner in Georgia Tech’s 2017 award season, taking home the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award and a Geoffrey G. Eichholz Faculty Teaching Award. That Fenton excels in both categories is not surprising. That he receives the two awards in the same year is icing on the cake.
What makes an award-winning undergraduate research mentor? According to those who know Fenton, the recipe includes trust, empathy, encouragement, enthusiasm to engage with students, and skill to tailor projects to students’ interest and strengths. Then add to those essentials a liberal dash of openness that invites excellence from all sources, especially women and underrepresented minorities.
Physics major James T. “Tim” Famer is one of many undergraduates Fenton mentored. Coming from chaotic family circumstances, Farmer overcame academic disadvantage through self-motivation. Now he is poised to graduate and has been accepted by four graduate schools. Farmer credits his success in large part to his research experience in Fenton’s CHAOS (Complex Heart Arrhythmias and other Oscillating Systems) lab.
Farmer’s experience exemplifies Fenton’s mentoring approach. “The atmosphere in the lab is open and inviting,” Farmer says. “I was quickly able to build relationships with senior members. With their help I was quickly able to establish my own serious research project.”
Farmer says the cohesion that Fenton fosters in the CHAOS lab is what enabled him to be successful in his undergraduate research. Fenton “has an extraordinary ability to work diligently toward goals while remaining cheerful, open, and approachable,” Farmer says, “and an innate ability to bring people together to work happily and productively.”
Under Fenton’s guidance, Farmer has coauthored conference papers, has presented a poster in an international conference, and has been selected to present at talk at a physics society meeting. Fenton’s encouragement to compete for research awards has landed Farmer multiple awards for his research.
Since joining Tech in 2012, Fenton has mentored 20 undergraduate and six high school students, which is extraordinary, says School of Physics Chair Pablo Laguna. Of these, 14 have been women or members of underrepresented groups.
A tireless advocate for science, Fenton encourages his students to also engage with the public. For example, he brings public attention to the physics of heart arrhythmias through performance of a human spiral wave, featured recently in Physics Today. Last year, he and Ph.D. student Andrea Welsh co-organized the Conference of Undergraduate Women in Physics at Georgia Tech.
Fenton’s effectiveness as an educator extends not only to lucky undergraduates he welcomes to his lab but also to numerous Georgia Tech students who take his introductory physics courses. For the outstanding quality and effectiveness of his teaching, Georgia Tech selected Fenton as a recipient of the 2017 Geoffrey G. Eichholz Faculty Teaching Award.
A typical Fenton lecture is not only effective, but also enjoyable and engaging, often employing scribbles on a whiteboard, information on projection screens, video clips, live demonstrations, and clicker interactions. He does what it takes to engage, educate, and inspire students.
Fenton’s efforts are richly rewarded, not only by consistently high scores in teacher effectiveness but also by students’ heartfelt appreciation. He “made me feel as though he was teaching the material directly to each individual,” one student says. “His passion for the subject and excitement in teaching it made it easier to appreciate and understand the material.”
“A helluva physics professor,” is how another student describes Fenton. Instead of a no-frills, by-the-book class this student expected, he got a “fascinating” physics lectures spiced with a dash of humor.
For one student, a B in Fenton’s course was worth more than an A in other courses, because Fenton made this student “enjoy learning physics, enjoy coming to class and practicing problems,” and feeling accomplished with grades below A “because I worked hard for those grades, enjoyed the concepts I was learning, and felt like I was not just memorizing but truly gaining new knowledge.”
Students also appreciate Fenton’s generous office hours. Students say they have met with Fenton for up to four hours in one session or even on a Saturday. “He makes himself available and goes out of his way to make sure his students are getting the education they came to Tech for,” a student says.
“I would find him working with struggling students at his whiteboard at 8 am or 8 pm, with equal probability,” a colleague says. His availability would increase as the semester progressed and the material became more difficult. According to this colleague, one student’s C would have been an F were it not for Fenton’s tireless efforts.
“I believe that a successful teacher is one who communicates to students – even those who claim to ‘hate’ science – the stimulation, excitement, and fulfillment of day-to-day research and, most importantly, a sense of their own intellectual power to pose questions and to pursue the answers,” Fenton says.
Fenton feels “much honored’ to receive the two awards. “However, the credit for the undergraduate research goes to my postdocs and graduate students who have helped mentor and guide the undergrads, as well as the undergrads themselves for their hard work,” he says.
“Teaching the introductory courses has been a lot of fun,” Fenton adds, “thanks to the tireless help of Ed Greco and the amazing Tech students. It’s crazy to get an award for having fun in class.”
In the CHAOS lab, Flavio Fenton (from right) looks on as Tim Farmer and Conner Herndon perform simultaneous optical mapping of voltage and calcium signals from a zebra fish heart.