Math’s Daniela Calvetti honored with Diekhoff award for outstanding mentoring

Daniela Calvetti’s efforts as chair of the mathematics department, teacher, mentor, adviser, researcher, role model—the list goes on—funnels down to a simple philosophy.

“Each student has potential and has dreams and has goals, and it’s my job to make it easier for them to achieve these,” Calvetti said. “I don’t want to give them a ride, I want to give them legs.”

Her capabilities and dedication have earned Calvetti her students’ respect and admiration and a John S. Diekhoff mentoring award this year.

Case Western Reserve University created the award in 1978 to recognize outstanding contributions to the education of graduate students through advising, mentoring and classroom teaching. Two faculty are chosen annually for serving as outstanding mentors to graduate students, connecting them with experts in their discipline, engaging them academically and actively promoting their professional development.

“This is an important prize,” Calvetti said. “It is a prize for doing something for others.

“When one is younger, prizes for one’s own research are what one works for. At some point in life,” said Calvetti, an avid gardener, “you take more pride in being the manure, and let the others be the flowers.”

Eight graduate students nominated Calvetti—the third time she’s been recommended for the award. They call her knowledgeable, tough, unparalleled, a pillar of strength and courage, caring and understanding.

“Dr. Calvetti is unrivaled when it comes to passion—passion for her work, passion for her teaching, passion for her department, and, most of all, passion for her students,” said Andrea Arnold, a fourth-year PhD candidate. “It is clear she wants all of us to succeed.”

Nominators said Calvetti constantly challenges them in their academics and in their research, but also willingly helps them in almost every aspect of graduate student life.  She reminds them they’re in graduate school to challenge themselves, and encourages them to publish and present their work at professional conferences. She also supports them in their job searches.

Calvetti has been on the Case Western Reserve faculty for 15 years, serving for five years as chair. She teaches undergraduate and graduate classes. This semester one of her classes is on math and the brain and the other on the numerical solution of nonlinear systems and optimization. And, Calvetti manages the department and investigates ways to improve cancer detection, understand brain metabolism—a key to understanding stroke—and more research aimed at improving people’s lives.

Still, she stops in the graduate students’ corner of the math floor daily just to talk, eats lunch with them, hosts gatherings and parties for them, meets their boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses and children because she wants to know students as people.

She’s direct adviser to nine and mentors six, but her door is open to all.

In March, shortly after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, the professor rejected three different dates for surgery because they conflicted with her students’ PhD thesis defenses. Luckily, the surgeon was very accommodating and found a time that worked well for everyone, she said. Calvetti spoke freely with students, many of them women, about her cancer and her choice not to slow her work or let the disease change her positive outlook on life.

That only added to Taina Immonen’s regard for her adviser. “I have at times been paralyzed by fear of failure, but her constant faith that things will work out so long as one doesn’t give up has been really inspiring to me,” said Immonen, who successfully defended her thesis in March. “Dr. Calvetti… does not allow setbacks affect her determination.”

Immonen was nervous the night before her defense, and Calvetti sat down with her at 9 p.m. to encourage and reassure her. They had worked together on computational models of growth of HIV strains.

The mentor was confident. She was certain that when facing her examiners, Immonen would know more about her project than any other person in the room.

“That’s when they have legs,” Calvetti said, “and are ready to walk away.”

The Diekhoff award was created in honor of John Diekhoff, who served at the university from 1956 to 1970 in roles such as 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.

Initially, the award recognized two faculty members who excelled in teaching; in 2009, the School of Graduate Studies expanded the award to honor faculty members with strong graduate mentoring skills. The Graduate Student Senate is responsible for the entire Diekhoff award decision-making process. Members of the Mentoring and Diekhoff Committee, chaired by Mark Barnes, reviewed nominations, interviewed nominees and selected winners from a large pool of candidates.

Faculty members Diane Bergeron and Colleen Croniger earned Diekhoff awards for teaching.