Jessica Fox “makes scientists,” but her approach to mentoring focuses on a student’s entire well-being, not just their scientific knowledge. 

“Life happens and you can’t put it on hold to do your PhD,” Fox said. 

So Fox, an associate professor in the Department of Biology, adapts her mentoring style to meet both the personal and professional needs of her students.

The Fox Lab: An oasis

Days before the start of her PhD program, Alexandra Yarger, an alumna of the Fox Lab, unexpectedly lost her father. Trying to cope with a traumatic event, Yarger saw the lab as her “oasis,” a space where she found comfort in talking about her personal experiences, but also where she set it aside and immersed herself in science.

Yarger’s experience isn’t the only hardship students in the Fox Lab have faced over the years, but because of Fox’s flexibility, understanding and support, all of her students have excelled.

“The lab is a place where each of us can contribute to research when we are able, and find a supportive place to be when we are not,” Fox said. 

Establishing such a well-balanced learning environment resonates with students, and is one of the reasons Fox is a 2021 recipient of the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Mentoring. She will receive the award during the university’s convocation program May 30.

Despite having won many research awards, Fox said this is the “biggest honor of her career.”

“It is really nice to know that I’ve had that kind of an impact on my students,” Fox explained. “Your students are your legacy.”

Make mistakes, a lot of them

Since 2013, Fox has worked in her lab with graduate and PhD students studying insect sensory systems. She teaches students technical knowledge and communication skills and provides networking opportunities that help them graduate as well-rounded scientists. 

Becoming a scientist involves a lot of failure and even more bad ideas—two things Fox encourages in her lab. She tells students that having a lot of bad ideas means they are one step closer to a good one, and by working together they can develop strong ideas and outcomes. 

“It’s the best job in the world,” Fox said. “We discover new and interesting things about the world together.”

About the award

The Diekhoff Award honors John S. Diekhoff, a distinguished scholar, teacher, mentor and administrator who served Case Western Reserve in several capacities during his tenure from 1956 to 1970: professor of English, chair of the Department of English, dean of Cleveland College, acting dean of the School of Graduate Studies and vice provost of the university.

The Diekhoff Award, established in 1978, recognizes outstanding contributions to the education of graduate students through advising and classroom teaching. The annual award is presented to two faculty members who epitomize what it means to teach graduate students: to connect them with experts in their discipline, engage them academically in a forthright and collegial manner, and actively promote their professional development. In 2009, the Diekhoff Award was expanded to recognize two additional full-time faculty members who excel in the mentoring of graduate students. A committee of graduate and professional program students with the guidance of the School of Graduate Studies reviews the nominations and recommends winners.