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Chakrabarty Honored for Mentorship

Even though he is six years out from graduating and now working at IBM, Vikram Iyengar, Ph.D., finds himself calling Krishnendu “Krish” Chakrabarty, Ph.D., on a monthly basis seeking advice or an opinion on a particular problem.

In a sense, Chakrabarty is continuing in a role he started in 2000, when the young Iyengar arrived at the Pratt School of Engineering to study computer engineering in his laboratory.

Chakrabarty“Krish allows his mentees a lot of freedom as they mature,” Iyengar said of his three years working under Chakrabarty at Duke. “He is quite flexible in that he worked with each of us based on our own personality and work habits, and he makes it a point to listen to students and change his style accordingly. His approach evolved as we evolved, so by the end we were able to be more independent and more able to make our own decisions.”

In recognition of his role as a mentor, Chakrabarty, Pratt professor of electrical and computer engineering for 10 years, was honored with the 2008 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring. Each year, three Duke University faculty members and three students are honored for being role models of excellence in research, teaching and academic service. The faculty winners are determined by graduate students.

Chakrabarty tries to model his teaching and professional behavior after his own mentor, John Hayes, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan since 1982. Chakrabarty received his M.S.E. and Ph.D. degrees in computer science and engineering from Michigan.

“I always try to emulate his style, his way of handling things,” Chakrabarty said. “Whenever I serve on panels or go to conferences, I find that he’s looked up to almost as a god because of his personality and the way he comports himself. He is totally apolitical – he prefers to take his stands on matters of science, not politics or personalities. I have always thought I could be like him.”

Iyengar actually came to Duke specifically to continue to be mentored by Chakrabarty. He earned his master’s degree under at Boston University while Chakrabarty was on faculty there. He then went to the University of Illinois, but after more than a year there, decided to come to Duke to reunite with Chakrabarty.

“When students first start out, often they are not in a position to start independent work,” Iyengar said. “Krish provides close guidance when needed. He helped me formulate problems and helped me decide what classes I should be taking. A lot of professors expect you to find your feet on your own from the beginning. I needed the close guidance, and Krish was there for me.”

Chakrabarty serves as mentor to both graduate students and undergrads, and finds that no two are alike when it comes to motivation or personality. For example, he recalls that during his first years at Duke, many of his mentees hailed from China. Most had difficulty in the beginning with the English language, and vice-versa.

“I’d take home drafts of their papers, many of which had little structure and bad grammar,” Chakrabarty said. “So I’d sit there with a bottle of Tylenol and slowly try to work through the papers. At first I tried to learn Chinese, but it was such a difficult language for me. I can recognize many Chinese characters, but I did find that we could always communicate through the more universal language of mathematics.”

Being a mentor is much more than serving as an academic adviser. Many times, they become intimately involved in their students’ lives. Chakrabarty remembers one student who was short-tempered -- even with him -- and ended up having in a knock-down, drag-out argument with his wife. She threw him out of the house and got a court order keeping him away.

“He had a qualifying exam the following week that he needed to do well on to continue,” Chakrabarty said. “I ended up speaking with his wife trying to patch things up. He ultimately passed the exam. I met with the wife and told her that if he ever acted up again, I would throw him out as well.”

A native of India, Chakrabarty came to Duke in 1998, after serving three years on the faculty of Boston University. He has also received a National Science Foundation Early Faculty (CAREER) Award and an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award.

“The ultimate product, if you can call it that, of a university is quality students,” Chakrabarty said. “It’s very important for our success to produce students that are leaders and whose work will stand the test of time. These students should be more than just good scholars, they need to be good people as well. Mentors can be an important part of this process.”

Iyengar said that the mentoring he received helped him succeed in the realm of industry, both during his studies and after.

“When I was Duke, we started collaborating with a Philips research lab in the Netherlands that worked out really well,” Iyengar said. “Krish helped me understand industry and how it can work with academia to get things done.

“He has also helped me communicate more effectively, whether in scientific papers or with other scientists,” Iyengar continued. “Communication is not something that is easy to learn on your own, at least for me. You may have the intelligence, but you need to know how to communicate in the modern world. Every day I work with customers on such details as technical details and costs, and I feel much more confident having been mentored by Krish.”

The mentoring award will be presented to Chakrabarty and the other winners April 22.