Wednesday, November 28, 2012

College of Engineering faculty K.K. Choi and Witold Krajewski each earned top recognition from the University of Iowa Graduate College for excellence in mentoring graduate students.

Choi, professor of mechanical engineering, and Krajewski, professor of civil and environmental engineering, are co-winners of the 2012 Graduate College Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award in mathematical and physical sciences and engineering.

“This is an award for a body of work. Twenty-five years is a good chunk of time, and I’ve had a pretty good run with my students,” says Krajewski, who joined the UI faculty in 1987.

Choi and Krajewski were nominated for the award by their students and colleagues and honored during a ceremony Nov. 27, at the Levitt Center for University Advancement.

K.K. Choi

As a young professor, Choi endeavored to keep up with all the details of his students’ research. However, he soon realized that he could be a “ceiling” to his students’ potential research achievements.

In 1994, Choi and his research team received $1 million from Ford Motor Company to develop software that would optimize the car body, making it as light as possible and without vibration. Much to his disappointment, Choi learned that his car was too expensive to build due to the precise thickness of the steel required for his computer-engineered design.

“This car is just a dream. It’s not going to be on the road. I felt like someone hit me with a hammer,” Choi recalls. “I had been doing science, not engineering. Science is like math; everything is on a piece of paper or a computer program. It’s not the reality; it’s not real engineering.”

After that experience, Choi changed his research area from “design sensitivity analysis and design optimization of mechanical systems” to “mechanical systems design under uncertainty.”

This shift had a big impact on how he mentored his graduate students.

“I am learning as much as the students are learning, because this is a new area,” says Choi, also faculty in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program of Applied Mathematical and Computational Sciences. “With my experience, I can guide them to be an expert in their field. If you don’t guide your students properly, they will run around in all different directions and become very inefficient. I make them be very clear about their objective.”

This approach works well with his students.

“Professor Choi is respectful, humble, and honest with his students and others as well,” writes doctoral student Nicholas Gaul in his nomination letter on Choi’s behalf. “He pushes us hard, in a good but not overbearing way, because he wants us to become as successful in our careers as he has been in his.”

Witold Krajewski

Krajewski’s mentoring goal is to learn from his students. He accomplishes this with a coaching approach, drawing on his athletic background of training and competing nationally in judo.

“The coaches I appreciated the most were able to balance direct criticism of my skills with encouragement and trust in my abilities,” says Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center and chair of water resources engineering. “I pride myself in bringing in three-star recruits and developing them into high-level professionals.”

Eight of his doctoral students have received the prestigious NASA Global Change Fellowship. Application materials included a detailed research proposal developed under Krajewski’s guidance.

Krajewski and his colleagues also initiated an annual legislative breakfast at the Iowa State Capitol at which UI faculty and students affiliated with the Iowa Flood Center communicate their accomplishments to state representatives.

“Professor Witold creates avenues for his students to appreciate the impact of our research in the real world,” writes doctoral student Tibebu Ayalew in his nomination letter on Krajewski’s behalf. “I had the opportunity of presenting my research results at the 2012 Iowa Legislative Breakfast. My challenge was to prepare a poster and be able to effectively communicate my research findings to the general public. He was very helpful throughout the process.”

Krajewski sees mentoring as part of learning alongside his students.

“We learn together. I want to learn more from what they are doing,” Krajewski says. “The research we do is trying to figure out nature, so there are plenty of surprises and plenty of complexities.”