Professor Roseanne Ford earns national recognition for taking mentoring far beyond office hours

Roseanne Ford knows from firsthand experience how important a mentor with a sympathetic ear and an informed perspective can be. “When I was an undergraduate and again when I arrived at UVA as a new faculty member, mentoring made a great difference to me,” she said. “It was because of these experiences that I have always thought of mentoring as a fundamental part of being a faculty member.”

A chemical engineering professor who studies bacterial chemotaxis and the use of bioremediation to treat hazardous wastes, Ford’s commitment to mentorship has shaped hundreds of lives over her career. In 2016, the Women's Initiatives Committee of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) recognized this achievement by presenting her with its Mentorship Excellence Award. This prize honors “women faculty who have contributed to the development of the next generation of chemical engineers through outstanding mentoring.”

Taking Every Opportunity for Mentoring

The depth and breadth of Ford’s mentoring activities is in itself remarkable. As a faculty member with an active research program, she has mentored dozens of postdoctoral fellows, Ph.D. students and master’s degree candidates. Her effectiveness can be measured by the posts they now occupy at some of the world’s best universities and top companies.

But while mentoring postdoctoral fellows and graduate students might be expected from a researcher, Ford took mentoring a step farther. She has long encouraged undergraduates to join her lab, providing training and encouragement for them to pursue their own projects. In addition to helping them submit proposals to University programs like the Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards (eight of her students have won Harrison Awards in the past 10 years), she has found opportunities for her undergraduates to speak at conferences and publish papers.

Ford has not limited herself, however, to university mentoring. She conducted an annual lab experiment for honors biology students at a local high school and has engaged elementary students in hand-on classroom demonstrations. She particularly remembers a young immigrant girl who learned to love science and engineering as she learned English—and who declared in her end-of-year speech that “one of my favorite things about first grade was doing science with Dr. Ford.”

Even as an administrator—Ford was the University’s associate vice president for research and graduate studies from 2004 to 2010 and chemical engineering department chair from 2011 to 2015—mentoring was much on her mind. The Mentoring Institute, a program she developed with Cheryl Burgan Evans that was designed to enhance the cultural sensitivity of faculty mentors, won the Council of Graduate Schools’ Peterson Award for Promoting an Inclusive Graduate Community.

Mentoring as an Avocation

In all her mentoring, Ford’s approach is distinguished by her conscientiousness and sensitivity. She clearly has given mentoring a great deal of thought. “I’m trained as an engineer to solve problems,” she said. “When a student comes to talk to me, I tend to be analytical and look for a way to work with the student to develop a framework for moving forward.” But she feels it is essential to temper analysis with empathy. “Sometimes students need to express their anxiety, disappointment, or frustration,” she said. “You need to know how to be a good listener.”

In Ford’s view, being a mentor is a commitment that extends beyond office hours. For her, mentorship means advocating for students, for instance, by networking with industry contacts to locate opportunities for undergraduate internships. And it means serving as a role model, which in Ford’s case is particularly important given the dearth of women in engineering and in engineering schools.

“One thing I will always remember,” she said, “is that when I came to UVA there were a number of fourth-year women in the Chemical Engineering Department who made a point of welcoming me and telling me how excited they were to have a woman faculty member join the department.” Being a role model for women engineers, Ford said, is a great responsibility, but it also a great privilege.

As it turns out, one of the roles that Ford has best modeled is as a mentor. As Professor Robert Davis noted in his letter of recommendation for the AIChE Award, “Roseanne’s impact is far-reaching because the example she set influenced many of her students to make mentoring and outreach a priority in their own professional careers.”