Biomedical engineer Nicole Seiberlich’s approach to mentoring earns her top honor

seiberlichNicole Seiberlich, an assistant biomedical engineering professor, wants her PhD students to make painful discoveries—to struggle and find answers on their own.

For that—and teaching, listening and counseling them—Seiberlich won the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Student Mentoring this spring.

Case Western Reserve University created the award in 1978 to recognize faculty who are outstanding mentors to graduate students, connect them with experts in their discipline, engage them academically and promote their professional development. Two faculty members are chosen annually for the award.

“I could tell my students exactly what I want them to do in the lab,” Seiberlich said, “but they take it and go in a different direction and come up with something better than what I would have done.”

It’s a method her students appreciate.

“She makes sure we develop into independent researchers, and she lets us do the work on our own without micromanaging,” wrote one graduate student nominator. “Because of her approach to mentoring, I have gained confidence in my abilities as a researcher.”

But Seiberlich also realizes one size doesn’t fit all, wrote another nominator. “If she recognizes that someone is best motivated by autonomy,” the student wrote, “she will give that person space; or if they need more guidance she will make it a point to meet with that person regularly.”

In three years on the faculty, Seiberlich has quickly built a reputation for being accessible. She even made herself available to her graduate students and those for whom she is an informal adviser while on maternity leave.

She became the unofficial liaison between the faculty and Biomedical Engineering Graduate Student Association, an organization that seeks to enhance the social and academic life for nearly 180 master’s and PhD students in biomedical engineering. A student credits her with helping the association finally—after two years of trying— organize a faculty-graduate student retreat that launched a number of initiatives to improve working relations, communications and more.

To help her students gain a broader perspective, Seiberlich encourages them to network at major conferences and work with her collaborators from other universities.

In the classroom, “She spends hours crafting her lectures and preparing,” wrote another grad student, who is a teaching assistant. “It really shows. Even though the material is difficult and mathematical, her presentations are clear and the students enjoy her lectures.”

Seiberlich, who grew up in Milwaukee, is developing technologies to enable magnetic resonance imagers to produce real-time images of irregular heartbeats and other activities within the body that occur too rapidly for standard processes to examine.

After graduating with a bachelor’s of science in chemistry from Yale University, she spent two years as a risk consultant before earning a PhD in physics at the University of Wuerzburg in Germany, with Mark Griswold, who is now a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering at CWRU.

Seiberlich, who credited Griswold and others for teaching her how to be a good mentor, said she has appreciated the PhD students around her from day one.

“I feel that what I do is enriched by these graduate students,” she said. “I hope the feeling is mutual.”