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White House names Stanford's Robert Gray among nation's top engineering mentors

Electrical engineering Professor Robert M. Gray was among 10 individuals and six organizations honored with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, the White House announced Friday.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) administers the award, which includes a presidential commemorative certificate and $10,000 grant to provide for continued mentoring work. Honorees have notably increased the participation of minorities, women and disabled students in science, math and engineering.

"He's a real standout in terms of the numbers of women [engineers] he's produced," said one of Gray's former students, Professor Eve Riskin of the University of Washington, in a phone interview. "He's working now on woman Ph.D. number 13. We calculated he supervised about 7 percent of the women faculty in the top 23 electrical engineering departments at least as of last year." In his 33-year career at Stanford, Gray has graduated 42 doctoral students.

Gray was honored, according to NSF spokesperson Manny Van Pelt, because he "demonstrated a successful model for attracting and accommodating women to engineering, actively mentored and encouraged women in their pursuit of electrical engineering doctorates."

Gray's "best practices" of mentorship have resulted in many of his former students going on to blossoming academic careers. At least five are tenured. "I am extremely proud of my former students and their accomplishments," Gray said in an e-mail prior to leaving for Washington, D.C., to participate in a mentoring panel with the other honorees on Monday and accept his award Tuesday in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

One of Gray's former students, Pamela Cosman, is now an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California-San Diego. She recalled in an e-mail what made Gray a great adviser when she was a graduate student from 1989 to 1993: "I found him to be a model of integrity and devotion to his students. He would spend hours helping us with research ideas, with writing papers, with public speaking, with finding jobs, with everything. He always put the student's best interests first. I had two children when I was a graduate student, and I was particularly grateful for Bob's giving me flexible work hours and having confidence in my work."

Mari Ostendorf, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, was a doctoral student of Gray's between 1981 and 1985. She was the first female doctoral student he mentored. "Bob was a great adviser, but more importantly, he has been a mentor to me for many years beyond my Ph.D.," she wrote in an e-mail. "In particular, he was a wonderful sounding board through times of major career moves, including switching from industry to academia and later moving to the University of Washington."

Riskin said Gray "took chances on people who did not seem cut out of the same mold as other students." These students included minority men as well as women. Their confidence may have suffered in the initial throes of the program, but they went on to do extremely well, she said.

Gray was also commendable, Riskin said, because "he did not encourage us to be horribly competitive with each other, as you may see in many research groups." That cooperation paid off down the line, she said, when many of the women would publish together and write letters of recommendation for each other.

"He is extremely ethical and taught us how to present research in the right way," she recalled. "He always gave credit where credit was due, probably more so than most people would. He remains a mentor many years out. I was a grad student between 1986 and 1990, and I'm still in regular contact with him and still go to him for advice. He recommends us for program committees and editorships. He's still your mentor even though many years have passed. You're part of his academic family."

Gray has received numerous awards from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, including, most recently, the Third Millennium Medal in 2000. He is vice chair of the Department of Electrical Engineering. An expert in signal processing and information theory, he heads a research group whose focus is compressing and classifying signals.


By Dawn Levy

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