Advising—It's More Than Academic-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

MCS Ball posters and photo booth pictures

Students pose with their advisors, or their advisor’s poster, in the photo booth at the 6th annual MCS Ball; (bottom) Posters for the MCS Ball featuring, clockwise from top, Eric Grotzinger, Maggie Braun and Karen Stump.

Advising—It’s More Than Academic

by Amy Pavlak

Danielle Little was a typical Carnegie Mellon student. You know the type—the ones who do “too much”—with most days beginning at 5 a.m. for crew practice, then classes for her physics major with an astrophysics focus and her second major in French, plus her duties as a resident assistant. When you add in the soul-searching that most college students are wont to do, Little found herself with a full plate that, on occasion, left her feeling a bit overwhelmed. It was during these moments that Little’s academic advisor, Physics Teaching Professor Kunal Ghosh, helped her find her way.

“Kunal’s door was always open to me—one student in a sea of students,” recalled Little (S’04, HNZ’06). “He really took the time to sit down and consult with me. He made it OK to feel overwhelmed. One of his tremendous abilities is to never contemplate that something is impossible, to always have this amazing encouragement behind everything he says.”

During her four years at Carnegie Mellon, Little spent countless hours seeking Ghosh’s counsel, especially when it came to deciding what to do with her physics degree. Not interested in pursuing a research career, she wasn’t sure how to translate her degree into a job that she would enjoy. “Considering a career path and further education outside of physics was very scary. When Kunal suggested that my interests may align with public policy, that seemed like the other side of the Earth.”

But it was exactly what she was looking for. Now a project leader in the Financial Risk Management section at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Little is thrilled that Ghosh pointed her toward public policy, where she uses her quantitative and problem solving skills to interpret data and evaluate payment system risk policies.

Little was just one of more than 100 students Ghosh advises every year, but she’ll be the first to tell you that his “infinite patience and interest” had a profound impact on her growth as a student and a person. And Little’s case is not an anomaly. Many students and alumni across all four departments in the Mellon College of Science will quickly tell you that their successes were in no small part due to the wisdom and guidance they received from their academic advisors.

Beyond the Course Catalog

While students might expect an academic advisor to help them choose courses, select a major or keep track of graduation requirements, MCS students know that their advisors are there for them on many other levels. Students may stop by to talk with their advisors when they feel like they need some grounding, have an idea for a new student club, or are thinking about getting involved in undergraduate research. And they come to share the good news—they were accepted to a graduate program at Harvard, they received many job offers, or they turned last semester’s 2.0 into a 3.5.

Karen Stump and students in her office

Chemistry Advisor Karen Stump (left) poses with some of her biggest fans after winning Carnegie Mellon’s Award for Outstanding Contributions to Academic Advising and Mentoring in 2011.

Eric Grotzinger and Matt Katase

Matt Katase (MCS ’13), co-owner of The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co., shows off his company’s beer- bottle logo to one of his advisors, MCS Associate Dean Eric Grotzinger, who helped him create a student- defined major that aligned with his interests in entrepreneurship.

Biological Sciences Murder Mystery Cast

Biological Sciences Advisor Maggie Braun (center) and Carrie Doonan, teaching professor of biological sciences and director of undergraduate laboratories (top row, left) with the other cast members of the Biological Sciences Student Advisory Council’s annual Murder Mystery Dinner.

The heart of MCS advising is the Committee for Undergraduate Affairs (CUA), formed in 1994 by former Dean Susan Henry to provide a collaborative approach to holistic advising—supporting students throughout their entire college experience, both curricular and co-curricular. CUA brings together the MCS Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs, MCS’s four departmental advisors, the advisors to the Health Professions Program and the Science and Humanities Scholars Program, and representatives from Student Affairs and the Career Center. All departmental advisors are teaching-track faculty with graduate degrees in their respective scientific fields, but their passion is undergraduate education and the students they teach and advise.

“It goes beyond, ‘Take this class,’ or ‘Take that class,’ ” said Eric Grotzinger, MCS associate dean for undergraduate affairs and biological sciences teaching professor. “We can give students a lot more. Our advisors have connections. We talk about careers and internships and research opportunities.”

While the MCS advising model does have the traditional one-on-one meetings where advisors and students talk about choosing and scheduling courses, it’s more than that.

“The CUA team engages students beginning with recruiting and first-year orientation. MCS advisors teach students in the classroom, work with them to address their evolving needs and interests both in and out of class, and launch them into their lives after graduation,” said Amy Burkert, vice provost for education and a former MCS departmental advisor.

CUA members participate in a number of activities for and with students—they meet students during admitted student weekends, engage in activities at MCS’s orientation event at the Carnegie Science Center (one advisor even did some crowd surfing), advise student organizations and clubs, walk for hours during the Relay for Life fundraising event, and dance the night away with students at the annual MCS Ball.

“I think when you start building those types of relationships, other good things happen,” Grotzinger said.

Grotzinger should know. As the first-year advisor to all incoming MCS students, he’s mastered building those relationships. And he has a legion of fans to show for it.

“In all honesty, I credit my getting through CMU to Eric,” said Matt Katase, who graduated with a B.A. from MCS in 2013 and now co-owns The Brew Gentlemen Beer Co., a start-up brewery in Braddock, Pa.

Brewing Up Success

Katase entered Carnegie Mellon set on majoring in chemistry. That all changed when he realized chemistry was something he enjoyed in high school but that his true passion was entrepreneurship. He walked into Grotzinger’s office his junior year and told him about his plans to start a brewery.

“Eric kind of just laughed and was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Katase said. “Once I proved that I was, the conversation became about how we could make this work, how he could help me and what we could do to get this done.”

Katase worked with Grotzinger and Mathematical Sciences Advisor John Mackey to create a student-defined major that had a basis in the Mathematical Sciences Department’s operations research track with electives in marketing research and entrepreneurship.

“You can look at the classes Matt took and see that we held his feet to the fire,” said Mackey, teaching professor and associate department head of Mathematical Sciences. “We made him take classes that were relevant and helpful to what he’s going to do going forward.”

Mackey and Grotzinger were focused on crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s for Katase’s self-defined major (a nontrivial process, according to Mackey, because the integrity of the Carnegie Mellon degree had to be maintained). Katase remembers the moment that they figured out a way to make it work and how happy they all were. But there was more to it than that.

“Eric and Mackey were the people who were willing to listen and help me figure it out when no one else wanted to or when everyone wrote it off,” Katase said. “I always knew when I was going into a meeting with either of them, something productive was going to happen—someone was going to be listening.”

Kunal Ghosh with students wearing t-shirt featuring his likeness

Physics Advisor Kunal Ghosh poses with students wearing t-shirts bearing his likeness. Each year senior physics majors design a t-shirt, and the class of 2013 created a design that featured Ghosh and his famous laugh, which is well known throughout the hallways of Wean Hall.

A Light in a Dark Tunnel

Katase stayed with Grotzinger throughout his entire journey at CMU, but many students funnel to their respective departmental advisors during their sophomore year. By then, they’ve decided on a major—and have already met their advisors many times, whether at first-year orientation, in the classroom or at a student club.

Erin Gantz (S’10) first met her future advisor, Chemistry Teaching Professor Karen Stump, when she visited for an admitted students’ weekend—her very first experience at CMU. Stump made a lasting impression on Gantz and her family.

“From the very start, Karen’s passion for science and her caring demeanor shone through,” said Gantz, who earned a B.S. in chemistry and is pursuing a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry at UC Berkeley. “My grandfather, whose wisdom has helped me on many occasions, whispered to me after the meeting, ‘Stay with her. She’ll help you through this.’ ” Gantz heeded her grandfather’s advice, and she not only got through it, she excelled. She maintains that she wouldn’t be where she is today without Stump’s support and encouragement.

“Karen made my experience at CMU perfect,” Gantz said. “You know that she cares deeply about your well-being, not just whether or not you’re going to graduate. She’s invested in how you’re doing as a person.”

Stump helped Gantz through a rocky first year as she adjusted to college life. And she helped smooth the way for Gantz to get involved with undergraduate research. “It’s intimidating to talk to a professor when you’re just an undergraduate,” Gantz said.

“Karen bridged that gap for me and matched me up with a professor right away. She even sent him an email before I did, letting him know that I wanted to join his lab and that she thought I would be a good match.”

Gantz’s story is just one example of how students benefit from an advising model built around a core team of teaching professors who are also domain experts. “We all feel that what makes MCS really special is that we’re all faculty and advisors so we can advise on the academic side. We have a better understanding of courses and course loads and things you should and shouldn’t do, and we can advocate with faculty when a student is interested in research or when students are struggling in an area,” Stump said.

And students can find themselves in any number of unpredictable situations where advisors can play a key role. Take Adriana Aspiazu, for example. After completing several semesters as a biological sciences major, Aspiazu took a two-year hiatus for personal reasons. When she returned to campus to finish up her degree, she found herself without her support system—all of her friends and her sister had graduated. Her advisor, Maggie Braun, smoothed the transition for her.

“Coming back wouldn’t have been the same without Dr. Braun. I definitely felt supported,” said Aspiazu (S’13). “Dr. Braun was really involved with me personally. She knew the ongoing issues, every single thing.”

When a problem with her off-campus apartment forced Aspiazu to pack up and move out just a few days before midterms, her stress level went from high to off-the-charts. But Braun was there for her. With an assist from Grotzinger, she calmed Aspiazu down and got in touch with her professors to alert them to the situation.

“I don’t really like to give excuses,” Aspiazu said. “But Dr. Braun and Dr. Grotzinger made me feel like it was OK and that I really could go forward. They were a light in a dark tunnel.”

Taking the Lead

These cases are just a snapshot of the outstanding advising MCS students experience every day. And the university is taking note. In 2013, Carnegie Mellon conducted an undergraduate advising survey, measuring students’ perceptions of everything from an advisor’s institutional knowledge to their feelings of being valued in the advising process. MCS advising led in many categories. Over time, MCS students’ satisfaction with advising has been high, particularly in these surveyed areas: “considers my specific career plans when helping me design my academic program,” “assists me with long-term educational plans” and “helps me make important decisions.” MCS advisors really stood out when it comes to having long-term, developmental discussions—and having them early.

Those discussions are something Gantz values to this day, and she encourages current chemistry students to take full advantage of everything Stump has to offer. “Just go talk to her about anything. But make sure to say a little bit about yourself, because not only will Karen listen, but she will also care and she’ll remember it. It’s very valuable time that you spend with her so really treasure it and be yourself. That’s what college is all about—finding yourself— and Karen has the personality and the skills to help you do that.”

Together, the MCS advising team is invested in making sure that the next generation of Carnegie Mellon scientists have the tools they need to help them grow and achieve their goals, whether they’re brewers, financial risk analysts or nuclear chemists.

Photo of the Committee for Undergraduate Affairs

The MCS Committee for Undergraduate Affairs, from left to right: (back row) John Mackey (mathematical sciences), John Hannon (Student Affairs), Kunal Ghosh (physics), Brittany Duncan (Career Center) and Veronica Peet (MCS); (front row) Jason D’Antonio (Health Professions Program), Eric Grotzinger (MCS), Karen Stump (chemistry), Maggie Braun (biological sciences) and William Alba (Science and Humanities Scholars Program).