Mentee Becomes Mentor

Having had excellent mentors throughout her academic career, Jessica Wu pays it forward.

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“I came to Harvey Mudd because of my commitment to educating the next generation of scientists,” says Yi-Chieh (Jessica) Wu, associate professor of computer science. “One of my favorite parts of this job is working with interested undergraduates to tackle challenging problems and make original contributions in computational biology. I am honored to receive this award.”

In February 2023, Wu was recognized with the 2023 Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentoring Award from the Computing Research Association’s Education Committee (CRA-E). The prestigious award recognizes “individual faculty members who have provided exceptional mentorship, undergraduate research experiences and, in parallel, guidance on admission and matriculation of these students to research-focused graduate programs in computing.” Eligible nominees must be full-time faculty at North American institutions, and only two or three awards are given each year. Wu received her award at the Association for Computing Machinery Awards Banquet in summer 2023.

“Jessica is an extraordinary mentor to her research students. She invests so much time, energy and care in working with her students to prepare them to engage in original and creative work,” says Ran Libeskind-Hadas, past HMC computer science professor and department chair and now the founding chair of the Department of Integrated Sciences at Claremont McKenna College. He worked closely with Wu for many years at HMC and nominated her for the CRA-E Award. “She has high expectations and provides a high level of support to help her students thrive.”

A continuously productive researcher during her time at Harvey Mudd, Wu heads a research program that develops and applies computational and mathematical models to analyze evolutionary relationships among genes and among species. Over the past decade, Wu has mentored 29 undergraduate research students. Twenty-eight have graduated, and 10 have gone on to top PhD programs. Eighteen students are co-authors on nine distinct papers in visible and respected venues in computational biology.

Wu says, “Many of my students use their experience to determine if they want to pursue graduate school, so I have a responsibility to provide an authentic research experience. I am seeing some of my early students now on the academic job market or starting their careers as professors. It is a joy to watch their growth and trajectory into independent researchers.”

Wu’s thoughtful approach impacted Jennifer Brennan ’16, now at Google Research. Brennan says, “The research I did with Dr. Wu provided a valuable bridge between the highly structured coursework of the undergraduate curriculum and the open-ended nature of a PhD.” Brennan and her partner in Wu’s lab were able to choose among several research projects, each using a different set of skills and tools. Wu scoped the projects so that they required reading only one or two background papers, a great foundation for the more in-depth literature review Brennan conducted in her PhD program at the University of Washington. Wu also modeled the importance of collaboration in research when she asked a professor from the math department to share his expertise in graph theory. “This exposure to research as a collaborative, interdisciplinary undertaking made me more enthusiastic about pursuing a PhD,” Brennan says.

Wu describes herself as a holistic mentor. While she would love to have her undergraduate students work with her over multiple summers, she encourages them to broaden their exposure and experience by working with another professor or completing an internship. “If it turns out they find another research area or industry experience more rewarding, that’s great that they have concrete personal experiences on which to base their decisions,” she says.

Wu feels “extraordinarily privileged” to have worked with excellent mentors throughout her own academic career, from her undergraduate studies at Rice University through her PhD program at MIT. She says, “My mentors were supportive while always being honest about my strengths and areas for improvement. Because of them, I realized that I wanted to go to graduate school, become a professor and join a small liberal arts college. I am grateful for their guidance and for the opportunity to pay it forward.”

Wu’s passion for undergraduate research mentoring extends beyond her own research program by empowering other faculty to become better undergraduate research mentors. She offers junior faculty advice on how to recruit students, organize research labs and sustain research through the semester. She talks from experience about finding both internal and external funding: She was a recipient of the prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Grant in 2018. Wu has also helped colleagues broaden their networks across the 7Cs and at other institutions.

Among the evidence considered by the CRA-E award committee is the diversity of the students mentored, a priority for Wu. “I believe it is important to support communities that are underrepresented in computing,” she says. “Literature has shown that providing hands-on experiences with computing research can substantially impact a student’s sense of belonging. While systemic problems still exist, I hope I am playing some small part in helping students find and follow their passions.”

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