Alex Huang, associate professor of pediatrics, pathology, biomedical engineering and general medical sciences in the School of Medicine, knows firsthand the value of mentoring.
At age 14, he moved with his family from Taiwan to Chicago. One of his earliest mentors was his high school physics teacher. That teacher, “Doc” Rank, wrote in Huang’s yearbook: “One day you may be rubbing elbows with Nobel laureates.”
The comment registered. “It meant the world to me as a 17-year-old who didn’t have the best English skills,” Huang said. “I didn’t expect it to be literally true, but it gave me confidence. I learned that a simple uplifting phrase or pat on the shoulder can mean the world to someone.”
Now, several inspirational academic mentors later, Huang himself has been recognized with a 2017 John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Mentoring. He will be recognized along with other award winners during commencement ceremonies May 21.
“I’m very grateful,” said Huang, whose lab studies immune-system activation to fight pediatric cancer. “I know how vital mentoring has been throughout my career. I try to apply what I learned from my mentors to my own interactions with the students and young clinicians and scientists I’m fortunate to work with.”
Nominations from Huang’s graduate students for the Diekhoff Award evoke someone who believes mentoring is as much about life as it is about science. One student wrote: “Alex demonstrates that he cares by asking us how things are going in and out of lab, offering words of wisdom and comfort at just the right moments.”
A second student nominator wrote, “If you join his lab, it’s like joining a family. Everyone supports one another just like in a family, and you will be welcomed into that family immediately.”
A member of Huang’s lab, Dixon Dorand, was awarded the 2017 Doctoral Excellence in Research Award in Pathology. In part, the honor is based on Dorand’s lead authorship, with Huang as co-senior author, of a paper in Science last summer. The piece reported that removing the CDK5 protein increased the susceptibility of an aggressive type of pediatric brain tumor to an assault from the body’s immune system.
“Alex’s mentorship has been invaluable to me,” Dorand said, “and it played a major part in my receiving the Excellence in Research Award.”
But Huang’s character and commitment to others will forever be associated with a family crisis. “My mother was dying of breast cancer last year, and Alex was an incredible source of support,” Dorand said. “As I was preparing to defend my PhD thesis and finalize the Science manuscript, he told me, as he tells all of us in the lab, to put family first. He supported me throughout with great empathy, allowing me to take time to be with family and then to recover. He gave me the resources I needed to resume my work after the crisis.”
The university created the Diekhoff Award in 1978 to recognize outstanding contributions to the education of graduate students through advising, mentoring and classroom teaching. It is awarded to two faculty members annually.