Faculty Mentorship: Professor Jason Marden
“Mentoring is all about helping young individuals find the path that best suits them”
What does mentoring mean to you and why is it important in your profession?
Mentoring is all about helping young individuals find the path that best suits them. It’s less about giving them advice and more about just listening and encouraging them on the path that they choose. From a rewarding perspective, seeing students fulfill their potential, whatever that is, is the pinnacle of what we do here.
As a student did you have a faculty mentor that you looked up to?
My faculty mentor was my advisor Jeff Shama. He educated me on a technical front, but it was more about the friendship that we developed over the years. That's what I found most rewarding through my graduate school experience. And that’s something that I try and build with all my students nowadays.
Do you think it's helpful for undergraduate students to start finding a mentor at that level to help them with moving forward and on to graduate studies? If you didn’t have an undergraduate mentor, do you think that would've been helpful to you?
Yes, having mentorship at the undergraduate level is huge. Learning how things transition as you go from an undergraduate, where it's very course intensive, to a graduate, where it's more about the relationships, the community, and just learning about a new area that you haven’t probed before. So, yes, I think it's an invaluable experience to have some mentorship.
Do you have any general advice for ECE students?
Yes, I do. And that’s to follow your passion. Whether that's in ECE or on the outside. I truly believe that the success that you experience, not necessarily 5 years down the road but 20 years down the road, will be more about whether or not you’re following something you’re passionate about rather than something that you’re good at. Passion will keep you in the game for the long time. I was a mechanical engineer, when I saw the movie Beautiful Mind, and I was fascinated by this idea of Nash Equilibrium. I then took my first game theory course, which obviously is in the Math Department not in the Mechanical Engineering Department, and then I just found what I was interested in and just kept going. So, always follow your passion. Never be afraid to voice your opinion. This is your graduate school experience, or your undergraduate school experience. Make of it what you will. Don’t be in one area or another because of outside pressure. Follow what you want.
Do most students come to you with a clearly defined path and goal? If not, how do you help them get there? And if they do, how do you push them to grow in ways they had not considered?
Actually, the students that come here and that interview here with a well-defined goal are usually the students that I steer away from. And the reason for that is: going into graduate school, it’s hard to know what to expect as an undergraduate. And for students that have the next 5 or 6 years of their lives mapped out for them, of here's where they want to be, I think it’s hard. At least I find that, personally, it’s hard to mentor them because I think graduate school is more about the process than the destination. And if they are very destination focused, it detracts from what the process can give you. I entered as an undergraduate with an emphasis in economics and I switched to engineering – maybe I shouldn't be saying this but – largely because there wasn't a foreign language requirement associated with engineering. I knew that I enjoyed mathematics, but things happen for a reason and I think that when people are so focused on the destination sometimes they don't let those little things happen where they evolve according to how things are supposed to go.
What aspects of an academic career do you find most rewarding?
The relationships. I mean, both from my colleagues that I get to do research with and, to a large part, the students. Developing relationships with the students, helping them reach their potential, whatever that is and in whatever direction, and just developing these lifelong friendships. I think that is definitely the most rewarding.
What do you hope your students take away from their time in your lab?
I hope they take away that sense of community. Whatever direction they choose to go in, whether it’s academics or industry, it’s really to make a focus on nurturing those relationships. Because those relationships are ultimately going to make or break you. And obviously, you've got to be skilled at whatever you're doing, but relationships can take an average working environment to a wonderful one.
Do you keep in touch with your former students?
Yeah. I pretty much keep in touch with almost all of them. In fact, we had a recent conference in Seattle – the American Control Conference – and one of my old students flew up there for the day just to meet with me because I was presenting some of his work. So, I got to spend some time with him. That’s definitely something that I try really hard to do.
How do you measure your success as a teacher?
You can look in the audience and see whether the kids are enthusiastic and somehow what you've said has inspired them. If I can make them think about a problem in a different way or if I can make them say, “Hey this is really interesting, how does this apply to X, Y & Z?,” that’s when I know that I’ve had success. And you're not always able to touch every student like that, but if you can touch a few that means the world.
Try to name or explain 3 things students are guaranteed to experience in your lab – or things they'd take away from working in your lab.
One of the things I hope they leave with is the sense that it's about their process, not about mine. That’s something that I truly try to get across in my mentorship to them. I try to minimize the impact of — from grants to proposals to the funding source — and make that my burden. My goal is to somehow set the table so that they can follow the path that works for them. Another is the sense of community. And that's not just with me but with the other students in their labs. So, we try and do a lot of social-style activities, like going for happy hour to foster that sense of community because ultimately that’s the reason why they’re here. And the reason why UCSB is the way it is, is not totally because of the faculty, but it’s mostly because of the quality of the colleagues that they have. Building those relationships amongst themselves — whatever I can do to help foster that is something that I try and do. And the third one is boba. If you're going to be in my lab, I'm going to drag you to a boba shop every now and then. That's just par for the course.
What is the greatest thing a student has ever taught you?
I think one of the greatest things is humility. You know when you get this faculty job, every year we're tasked with recruiting students. The first student that worked with me came in my office and gave me the "it's not you it's me" speech. It really impacted me, forcing me to reflect upon the process and whether or not working with me was really in the student's best interest. Now I try and remove myself from the equation. I mean, it always hurts when a student says, "Yeah I’m not interested in working with you," but now I do not try to discourage that. I want them to reach their potential. If it's with me, great. If it's with someone else, I fully and wholeheartedly support that. So, one of the greatest things – is humility.