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Astrophysicist Keivan Stassun Wins 2018 AAAS Mentor Award

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Keivan Stassun has personally mentored students and served as an expert witness during a 2010 hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, which focused on broadening participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Keivan Stassun, the Stevenson Professor of Physics and Astronomy and senior associate dean for graduate education and research at Vanderbilt University’s College of Arts and Science, has been chosen as the winner of the 2018 AAAS Mentor Award. Stassun was selected for personally mentoring dozens of underrepresented minority students and for building “innovative mentoring models that bridge critical attrition points in the development of underrepresented minority physicists and astronomers.”

In award materials, AAAS noted that Stassun maintains “a strong dedication to his mentees’ growth as scientists,” and further noted that the extent of his mentoring influence is “wide and truly remarkable.”

From 2003 to 2015, Stassun co-directed a partnership between Vanderbilt University and Fisk University, which aims to reach talented, underrepresented minority students who are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. Students attending Fisk University, a historically black institution, are mentored as they take classes and conduct research before eventually entering Ph.D. programs at Vanderbilt University and beyond. As of spring 2017, the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, now co-directed by Stassun’s colleague, astrophysicist Kelly Holley-Bockelmann, had produced 27 Ph.D. graduates in physics, astronomy, materials science, chemistry and biology. The program’s participants have included Jedidah Isler, the first African American woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Yale University. His mentees have published in the journal Nature, received the nation’s top postdoctoral fellowships in astrophysics from NSF and NASA, and have gone on to postdoctoral appointments at institutions such as Harvard University and faculty positions at institutions such as Penn State University.

M. Shane Hutson, professor of biological sciences and physics at Vanderbilt University and chair of the university’s physics and astronomy department, wrote in nominating Stassun for the AAAS Mentor Award: “His research efforts in astronomy have been tremendously successful, and he has made his impact even larger through his passion for increasing the participation in physics and astronomy of underrepresented minorities.” Hutson added that the Bridge program “has grown and flourished under Keivan’s leadership and is undoubtedly one of our department’s and our institution’s shining lights.”

In a letter supporting Stassun’s nomination, astrophysicist Deatrick Foster wrote that he was immediately struck by Stassun’s mentoring instincts when they met at the 2007 Joint Annual Meeting of the National Society of Black Physicists and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists. With encouragement from Stassun, Foster applied for and participated in the Bridge program and went on to complete a Ph.D. in physics at Vanderbilt University in 2013. Over the past 10 years, Foster has come to know Stassun as a mentor, colleague and friend.

“His unwavering support for me personally and professionally has been invaluable,” Foster wrote. “I am thankful that I can lean on Keivan’s experience and wisdom, and I appreciate his sincere interest in my success.”

Stassun earned his bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy from the University of California, Berkeley, and completed his Ph.D. in astronomy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 2000. He has previously been honored with the Research Corporation for Science Advancement SEED Award and the American Physical Society Nicholson Medal for Human Outreach, as well as the Vanderbilt Affirmative Action and Diversity Initiatives Award and the National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

In addition to being a fellow of AAAS, Stassun is a fellow of the American Physical Society. He has also participated in a variety of initiatives related to underrepresented minorities in astronomy and space science, including his service as co-chair of the Vanderbilt Chancellor’s Committee on Diversity, Inclusion and Community. The committee produced a report with recommendations for making the university a more diverse and inclusive community within 15 years. He also served as an expert witness during a 2010 hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Research and Science Education, which focused on broadening participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Despite Stassun’s various institutional responsibilities, he remains committed and connected to his students. “He has never lost that personal touch and… that means a great deal to his mentees,” wrote Hutson.

Today, Stassun has expanded the reach of his mentoring efforts to include neurodiversity, as founding director of the Vanderbilt Initiative for Autism, Innovation & the Workforce, which seeks to expand STEM workforce engagement of individuals with autism with a strengths-based approach that matches unique autistic capabilities with 21st century workforce needs.

The AAAS Mentor Award honors AAAS members who have mentored significant numbers of underrepresented students, including women, minorities and persons with disabilities, pursuing Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and who have demonstrated scholarship, activism and community building on behalf of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. The award includes a $5,000 prize and a commemorative plaque, and complimentary registration to the AAAS Annual Meeting as well as reimbursement for expenses to attend the meeting.

The award will be bestowed upon Stassun during the 184th AAAS Annual Meeting in Austin, Texas on Feb. 18, 2018.

[Associated image: Vanderbilt Communications]