Suzie Hwang Pun: Distinguished Graduate Mentorship Award Winner

Suzie Hwang Pun
photo credit: Dennis Wise and Mark Stone/University of Washington

Suzie Hwang Pun has consistently sought opportunities to inform and inspire: giving math lessons to her sister as a child; leading piano lessons as a young adult; and now, teaching and mentoring as a professor in Bioengineering.

Pun started as a professor at the University of Washington in 2003 and since then has been recognized for her outstanding mentorship on several occasions. In June, she was awarded the Landolt Distinguished Graduate Mentorship Award, after being nominated by several of the graduate students in her lab for the sixth year in a row.

As a student, Pun benefited from having outstanding mentors. In undergrad, Pun’s professor and academic advisor encouraged her to work in his lab and sparked a passion for research. While in the lab, she found a strong mentor in a graduate student. This grad student “really took me on as a person,” Pun says, “not just a set of hands to help her with experiments.”

Now, Pun’s graduate student mentees are eager to say the same things about her: how she truly cares about their professional, academic and personal development; how she fosters a relationship with them as an individual; and how she has made a lasting impact on their graduate school career.

To be recognized by the Graduate School for her mentorship means a lot to Pun. “Mentoring graduate students is where I put the bulk of my energies,” she says, so she’s touched that her students recognized her efforts by nominating her for the award.

Pun says she has grown as a scientist from the influence of her grad students: pointing to the numerous projects grad students have started in her lab. But beyond the scientific influence, her grad students “are what make me really love being a professor,” Pun says. “On a day-to-day basis, they bring me a lot of joy.”

Brynn Olden stands with Dr. Pun
Brynn Olden (left) stands with fellow grad students and Dr. Pun.

Brynn Olden, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Pun’s lab, was one of three grad students to spearhead the nomination process for Pun. Brynn has only glowing things to say about her mentor: namely, how deeply she cares about her students, and how she is a strong, female role model for her in a male-dominated field.

There’s a hint of reverence in her voice when Brynn talks about how efficiently Pun uses her time — never holding excessive or long meetings and allowing her students to guide how often they want to meet. “She’s wise with her words,” Brynn says, emphasizing how judicious Pun is with every second.

Developing the mentee and the mentor

Being a mentor is not necessarily intuitive: it takes practice. Pun recalls one of the first graduate students she mentored, who — while exceptionally smart — struggled to meet deadlines and seemed unhappy in the lab.

Over lunch, Pun says the student confided that he was not feeling motivated in lab. The student needed to know that others were relying on him to feel motivated, he said; but in the lab, which was small at the time, all of the students worked independently. So Pun reorganized the student’s assignments — notably taking a risk by putting him on a project with a strict deadline — hoping it would change his experience. It worked.

“He totally transformed,” Pun says. “After that, he just took off. Now he leads a group in a biotechnology company.”

Obviously the student benefited enormously from the close mentorship and guidance from Pun. But Pun is also quick to point out how much this experience was beneficial to her.

Pun, left, talks with her first undergraduate and graduate students in her lab.

“When I first started mentoring, I made the blind assumption that all my students were like me,” she explains. “I realized, ‘I need to get to know what my grad students want.’ Sometimes they don’t even know themselves, so it takes some exploring.”

Even as Pun helps her grad students to learn about themselves, “I don’t try to define who my students should be,” Pun says. “I really try to listen to them in terms of what their goals are and what it is they want to attain. I’m there to facilitate and try to support them in those goals.”

Brynn says Pun’s individualized mentoring helped her explore interests in science policy, and, when her interests changed, careers in industry. Pun’s mentorship style has made a strong impression on Brynn, who says she has taken a similar individualized approach in mentoring undergraduates in the lab.

Inspiring a culture of mentorship

When asked how the Graduate School can better encourage mentorship on campus, Pun recalls what it was like to start as a professor. While she was confident in her research capabilities, ”I essentially received no training to be a mentor,” she says.

The Graduate School offers mentorship training at an annual retreat for faculty, but ongoing training in mentorship would also be helpful, Pun says. As well, including mentorship as part of the evaluation criteria for professors would encourage more professors to make it a priority, she says.

Dr. Pun and her grad students celebrate at the Annual Awards of Excellence Ceremony
Dr. Pun, center, celebrates with her grad students at the annual Awards of Excellence Ceremony.

Pun is already impacting the culture of mentorship at the UW by fostering mentor/mentee relationships in her lab. Pun’s grad students witness the importance of mentorship, and are prepared and excited to mentor others.

As a lab, Pun and her grad students have conversations about how to mentor undergraduates. They share tips about what makes an effective mentor and discuss challenging situations. “It’s a shared learning process,” Pun says, adding that she’s still building her mentorship capabilities. She also reads books on mentorship, leadership and team-building to develop her skills in these areas.

Pun’s reputation as a strong and passionate mentor is part of what attracted Brynn to Pun’s lab. Brynn recalls her first interaction with Pun, the one that affirmed her decision to attend the UW.

“When I met with Suzie (during graduate school interviews), the first question she asked me was ‘What do you want from graduate school, and how can I help you achieve your goals?’” Brynn says. After this exchange, Brynn knew Pun would provide the attentive and supportive mentorship she needed.

The exchange sounds like Pun: Supportive, personable, and highly efficient.

Published June 2018