Through mentorship, community involvement and leadership roles, graduate students in engineering can have an immense impact on the undergraduate experience of dozens, if not hundreds of students.
Jonathan Welburn, an industrial engineering PhD student, conducts research in food safety risk and global financial crises under Vicki Bier, professor and chair of industrial and systems engineering. During his six years as a graduate student, he has mentored eight young students, many of whom are from groups underrepresented in the science disciplines. One of his former mentees is pursuing a PhD at Stanford, another is a master’s student at Georgia Tech, and a third, Brian Zhou, has accepted an offer as an investment-banking analyst at JP Morgan Chase.
Zhou, who graduated in 2015, says that Welburn supported him in determining whether to pursue a graduate degree in industrial engineering or a career in finance.
“As a founder (and previous co-president) of the Society of Mathematical Finance and a PhD student within our department, Jonathan was able to offer me valuable insight into both fields, and was willing to meet anytime and discuss at great length any questions I had about either career path,” Zhou says.
Bier, who also served as Welburn’s advisor and mentor during his undergraduate education at UW-Madison, says that his experience with undergraduate research helped him see the value in providing a similar experience to other undergraduates, especially underrepresented minorities. Welburn, who is African American, also helps support the diversity initiatives of the college, both through his mentorship roles and as a Graduate Engineering Research Scholar, participating in science nights at a local bilingual elementary school.
“For minority students, having mentors that they can relate to, it helps them visualize a place for themselves,” Bier says.
Welburn, who typically mentors two students at a time, does research that is highly conducive to undergraduate participation. Through the topic of risk in food safety, he works through large, often messy sets of data. This platform allows students to engage with a problem that lacks a clear solution.
“It hopefully reinforces what they learn in class, and makes them excited about data,” Welburn says. “It’s nice to try and see what their personal interests are, and let them emphasize that in what we do. Because then it’s their own project.”
But working with students has always been a two-way street for Welburn. Undergraduates are able to engage in a topic that interests them, applying their classroom experience to a viable problem. Welburn, in turn, gets to interact with an eager and diverse range of students who contribute results to his own research. For example, one of his now-former students, Steve Hoerning, served as a co-author on a recent paper Bier’s group published.
“I definitely learn a lot from them as well,” Welburn says. “I learn new things simply in the process of explaining the research, and my interest is reinforced by those conversations.”
However, Hoerning, who is now a PhD student in operations research at Stanford University, says that Welburn’s commitment to his students goes well beyond research.
“He has a contagious intellectual curiosity, and we spent a lot of time discussing a wide range of topics,” Hoerning says. “He helped me network with professors and graduate students inside and outside of the department. He encouraged me to take challenging courses I otherwise might have avoided. If I hadn’t met Jon my sophomore year, I don’t believe I would have pursued a doctorate.”
By mentoring undergraduates, Welburn is also able to consider his long-term options: whether to pursue a faculty position or take a job as a policy analyst, since he will be defending his dissertation in August 2016. His experience allows him to excel at either choice; he has served as a teaching assistant under Bier, as well as an instructor for the largest class in the department, ISyE 313: Engineering Economic Analysis, through which he extended his outreach to engineering students from across the College.
In addition to his teaching duties, his roles in various societies, and his position as a mentor, he also has served as a grad-student mentor for the Madison team that participated in the College National Fed Challenge, and as a judge for an undergraduate paper competition at the Great Lakes Regional Conference of the Institute of Industrial Engineers.
“He has the kind of personality where he always wants to try something new, even if it requires much more work,” says Bier.
Welburn’s passion, service-mindedness and willingness to learn have positively influenced countless undergraduate students, providing them with a role model and more often than not, a friend. Welburn still stays in contact with his previous mentees, checking in with them every other week either through Skype or email. Yet, despite his role in their lives, he remains humble, insisting that he simply offers a guiding hand for students who are already on their way up.
“Jon is one of the individuals here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has made the most positive impact on me as an undergraduate student,” Zhou says. “I am sure that he will continue to make a positive impact as a mentor to others in the future as well.”
Author: Lexy Brodt