Physics and astronomy’s Glenn Starkman earns Diekhoff mentoring award

Glenn Starkman says his style of mentoring graduate students is similar to the way he taught his children to ride their bikes: He stays hands-off until the moment they need him—and the second that happens, he’s there, waiting to catch them.

That hands-off-until-necessary approach earned Starkman, a professor of physics and astronomy, the John S. Diekhoff Award in Graduate Mentoring. Created in 1978, the Diekhoff Awards recognize full-time faculty members for excellence in graduate student teaching and mentoring.

Through his advising, Starkman aims to build students’ independent thinking, guiding them to the point where they’re asking their own questions, finding their own answers and working on their own ideas, he said.

First, though, he has to help them uncover what questions they even want to ask.

“I try hard to figure out what they’re interested in and to steer them toward sets of questions related to what they think is exciting,” said Starkman, who joined the Case Western Reserve faculty in 1995 after earning degrees from University of Toronto and Stanford University and holding several research positions. “Then, I want to match the knowledge they have at that point with what will stretch them and what will hopefully allow them to graduate and get a post-doctoral position afterward.”

A founding board member of the Reinvention Center, a national center that focuses on undergraduate education at research universities, Starkman finds it crucial to promote independent, challenging thinking in his students. He encourages his students to ask new questions—and lots of them. When recently mentoring a student, he kept pressing the student to come see him regularly with new questions, whether they were interesting or not.

“I warned him that none of them would be interesting, but that he needed to keep coming to me with them anyway,” he said. “Soon, 1 percent would be interesting, if we were lucky, and if we worked hard, he would get the percentage up to 10 percent. Then we would know that we were successful because it is rare that more than 10 percent of your ideas are actually worthwhile.”

This persistence is one of the many reasons Starkman’s graduate students nominated him. “He appears unafraid to push forward and do what is necessary to achieve success. He is undeterred by hurdles or mistakes and appears to see every challenge as an opportunity,” one of his nominators wrote. “I could summarize this all by saying he’s has a very ‘can do’ attitude, and I’ve really tried to absorb some of that.”

Starkman attempts to instill that “can do” attitude in all of his students. For example, as one nominator recalled: “When I came up with an unconventional idea, he advised me not to spend too much time on it, since it was probably impossible,” he wrote. “Then immediately he told me: ‘When a wise old man tells you that something is possible, you should believe him. When he tells you that something is impossible, do not believe him.’”

It’s important to Starkman that his students push themselves and question the norm because they help him see new points in his own research. His students are heavily involved in this research, which ranges from searching for habitable planets around other stars and understanding the shape of the universe to looking for miniature black holes in particle accelerators and extending and testing Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

“Almost all of my research is their research,” said Starkman, who also serves as director for both the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics and the Institute for the Science of Origins. “To me, when I think of doing research, I think of standing around with my students and post-docs, talking about physics and working stuff out. When I think of research, it is with my students.” In fact, he will take three students with him as he spends next year on sabbatical at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research).

Starkman, a 2003 Guggenheim Fellow, noted that although mentoring goes beyond helping them develop as researchers, it still remains at the core of his mentoring philosophy. “I want to make them better researchers and help them understand what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are and how to work with that,” he said. “And to make sure they’re actually having lives while they do all of that.”

Starkman spends much of his life outside the classroom and research lab doing public outreach on the importance of science, through events such as the Origins Science Fellows Subscription Series, a public lecture and dinner series featuring Case Western Reserve University faculty members and Cleveland Museum of Natural History researchers, and the “Life, the Universe & Hot Dogs” public lecture series at the Happy Dog in Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway district.

Beyond his science life, Starkman spends most of his time with his family, with whom he particularly enjoys being outdoors—canoeing, hiking and, of course, biking.

The university created the Diekhoff Award in 1978 to recognize full-time faculty members who make exemplary contributions to the education and development of graduate students at Case Western Reserve University. The 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.

A committee of the Graduate Student Senate conducts the entire process, from nomination to the selection of the winners. Committee members were Ashley Gan, Mark Barnes, Yotam Blech-Hermoni, Greg Chung, Timothy Franke, Jingle Jiang, Brad Lang, Michelle Meredith, Kelsey Potter, Ben Saliwanchik, Joe Volzer and Brian Werry.

The winners were honored at the Graduate Awards Ceremony yesterday. Read about the other mentoring award winner, Eileen Anderson-Fye, here.