By Allison O’Donnell, Written Communications Specialist, UConn School of Engineering
At the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester, JLLA invested in Mind Garden’s leadership evaluation tool to quantify the success of the group’scurriculum. On Tuesday, May 26, members received their individual results and decided on leadership development plans moving forward.
Vice President Stephany Santos explained that “This [program] is to determine where we, as individuals, are. Then we can decide where we want to be and decide how to get there.”
The program, Mind Garden’smultifactor leadership questionnaire (MLQ), provides a holistic assessment of individual leadership by comparing self-assessment to assessment by: higher level, lower level and same level peers. Comparing each of these evaluations will create individualized action plans to achieve transformational leaders.
JLLA has cultivated leaders with various personalities and leadership styles and values diversity in leaders. The program will further adapt to individual needs by creating “focus groups” based on specific skills that members would like to improve.
“A lot of us joined JLLA to be proactive in our development, which is why I think our results indicate that the majority of us don’t wait till something is going wrong till we fix it,” said JLLA President Randi Mendes.
Members will continue to evaluate their growth in following semesters to measure the success of the leadership curriculum and confirm the effectiveness of the program. To apply to JLLA, apply here.
By Allison O’Donnell, Written Communications Specialist, UConn School of Engineering
Justin Fang is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biomedical Engineering who conducts research on biomaterials in the LoTurco Lab. His research involves capturing QDs in bio-compatible polymers for imaging.
In addition to his research, Justin has served three terms on the Executive Board of the Graduate Student Senate (GSS), with the last two terms as the GSS President. In addition to his Presidency, Justin has served as the Graduate-Student Senator to the University Senate, which comprises graduate and undergraduate students, staff, and faculty at UConn.
In his role at the University Senate, he has served on the University Senate Executive Committee where he helped develop and write university-wide policies, in coordination with the President and Provost of UConn. Lastly, Justin is also the Student -Trustee on UConn’s Board of Trustees, where he represents the interests of fellow UConn students. As such, he became a member of JLLA to become a leader that can inspire others.
“JLLA has been a great opportunity for me to hone my leadership skills, especially when it comes to how to manage a team towards a shared goal,” said Justin. “[Leadership skills] are important to succeeding in a global economy, and is an important skill in general to have.”
Justin says he would encourage all graduate students in the School of Engineering to apply to JLLA, “since college graduates with a master’s or Ph.D. degree typically result in graduates being placed in a leadership role, wherever they end up.”
He also emphasizes the importance of knowing how to inspire others and maximizing efficiency- regardless of industry.
Outside of JLLA, Justin enjoys staying active by playing tennis, racquetball or hiking. When spending time inside, he plays the piano and reads sci-fi books.
JLLA founder Randi Mendes is a fifth-year PhD student in Environmental Engineering and has been president of JLLA from 2018-2020. She is a California native with a bachelor’s in Ecological Engineering from Oregon State University.
Mendes came to UCONN for graduate school as a fellow with LSAMP Bridge to Doctorate Program and decided to stay for her PhD. Currently, she researches biogeochemistry in wetland systems with the Vadas Group- Mendes says she is interested in connecting science to nature.
Outside of school, you can find Mendes gardening and staying active outdoors. She has gone hiking in Yellowstone, Zion and Acadia National Parks. She also is involved in the Student Association of Graduate Engineers (SAGE), which she says segwayed her into helping create JLLA.
“I used to help run SAGE, which led to my involvement with John Lof. The things that I have learned from running [JLLA], I don’t know how else I would have got that.”
In her eyes, JLLA is special because of how the program is tailored to suit the needs of each individual. She says that the structure allows for individuals to “grow how they want to grow.”
In terms of her own growth, Mendes says that helping build this program in addition to the curriculum has improved her leadership style.
“Working with a diverse group of individuals has helped me learn to accommodate different people and knowing when to draw the line,” said Mendes.
Through this unique program, Mendes has fostered relationships with engineers from other departments and built connections that she intends to maintain past graduation.
The John Lof Leadership Academy (JLLA) is persisting with the Spring 2020 curriculum- Applying Your Leadership Philosophy– and hosting a second virtual workshop during the COVID-19 pandemic via Zoom.
JLLA member I’jaaz Muhhamad planned the virtual workshop on May 15, focused on micromanagement in the context of mentorship. Five experienced women in leadership roles attended the workshop to answer questions and train members to engage with effective mentoring techniques.
“One of my main takeaways was how key communication is to getting people to listen and mentor,” said I’Jaaz. “We also learned the difference between coaching, mentoring and sponsoring other people and their specific roles in interpersonal communication and relationships when it comes to power dynamics.”
Members had two hours dedicated to understanding the nuances of leadership and how individual leadership style can be applied in an effective way. Vice President of JLLA, Stephany Santos, said that viewing leadership on a more individual level can make for more genuine and effective mentorships.
Having leaders from both academia and industry provided insight into how these skills apply to their individual career goals. Muhhamad emphasized understanding “how to lead is never really about the leader; it’s about how the mentee is retaining the information given, if they even want to receive that information.”
JLLA President Randi Mendes lauded the guest speakers, because “one of the big things [JLLA is] trying to do is to develop the individual leader and help each person develop their strengths to be the leader they want to be,” she said. “This program aims to overcome the cookie-cutter version of what a leader is or should be.”
Leila Daneshmandiis a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in Biomedical Engineering and a member of JLLA’s inaugural cohort. Her dissertation is centered on the development of biomaterials to repair and regenerate bone tissue.
Leila is also a student entrepreneur and the co-founder and COO of Encapsulate, a start-up that is developing automated precision diagnostics for personalized cancer therapy. Encapsulate has won numerous awards, and was most recently awarded the prestigious 2019 International Space Station U.S. Laboratory and Boeing “Technology in Space” Prize for $500,000 and the opportunity to conduct research projects onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
She says that building her own company has been based on collaborative teamwork and through combining her background on tissue generation, with her co-founders on anti-cancer drugs and delivery systems.
Being a member of JLLA has taught Leila to better navigate through her leadership role both within her company and also as a Ph.D. student.
“We’ve started this business and are continually growing. We’ll hire people in the near future and so it’s really important for us to learn leadership skills not only in terms of running the business but also in terms of our team and creating a positive culture for our employees.”
JLLA’s curriculum helped Leila better understand the nuances of leadership. Inspired by learning more about leadership, she took a project management and a leadership and communication course from the business school. “Leadership skills may seem to be intuitive, but there’s actually a lot of resources available to help you develop skills and have techniques and tools that you can use.”
Leila wants to pursue a hybrid career between academia, research and entrepreneurship. She is passionate about bringing real-life healthcare solutions to those in need. So, a valuable aspect of JLLA for her was “to learn how to work across different groups and develop better communication skills,” she said. “JLLA and the school of engineering in general, have been so helpful in providing support and guidance. These programs are much needed, especially at the graduate level where everyone’s so much more focused on their studies and dissertation work”.
You can find Leila on Twitter @leiladaneshmand, where she tweets about her academic interests.
After nearly 10 years at the University of Connecticut, as an undergraduate and a graduate student, Santos has made her mark, especially in the EDOC, where she helped found Engineering Ambassadors as an undergrad–a group of hundreds of students, who help run prospective student tours, have outreach programs in local schools, and much more.
We recently sat down with Santos, and asked her about her time here, her plans for the future, and her reflections on landing her dream jobs.
What will be your new title, and what responsibilities come with this new job?
I will be an assistant professor-in-residence in Biomedical Engineering, and the associate director of the Engineering Diversity and Outreach Center (EDOC). In these roles, I am excited to impact students on personal and professional levels. I will be teaching several courses, including ENGR 1166 – Foundations in Engineering, and co-teaching ENGR 1000 – Orientation to Engineering. These courses in particular deeply excite me because of how critical students’ first years are in developing a positive and robust STEM/Engineering Identity, strong and empathetic team and communication skills, and effective planning and metacognitive understanding.
As the Associate Director, I will be co-advising many of the student organizations (such as NSBE undergraduate and graduate chapters, SHPE, SWE, and EA), and developing and teaching curriculum focused on emotionally intelligent and culturally-conscious team and leadership skills. Additionally, I will help Kevin McLaughlin and Velda Alfred Abney develop workshops and programming that serve and uplift the greater SOE community, and underrepresented students in STEM. I will continue supporting EDOC Summer programs such as BRIDGE, Explore Engineering and SPARK. Lastly, I will be conducting research in the engineering education realm to further understand our students, their communities and environment, and the impact players in this ecosystem have on each other. I’ll be seeking grants and collaborations to support this important work.
You’ve been at UConn for nearly a decade between undergrad and graduate school. How does it feel to land a job here?
It still feels like I’m in a dream. I remember in elementary school I was tall for my age, so I grew up playing and loving basketball. I looked up to the great Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, and Swin Cash, and dreamed of playing basketball for UConn. Unfortunately, I stopped growing in 5th grade, and didn’t have much of a chance playing power forward at this powerhouse institution. But still, UConn became my home. Fast forward to now, to be honest, I cried when I received my offer letter from UConn. Never have I felt so wanted, supported and uplifted, and I truly thank Dean Kazem Kazerounian and Dean Dan Burkey for not only putting their names in the ring when I entered the academic job market, but for creating this incredible opportunity to be able to stay.
Let’s go back to your experience here when you were an undergrad. What were some of the most defining moments during that time, and how do you want to translate those experiences to your new post in EDOC?
There are two events that I’ll bring to the table here:
(1) I remember it was 3 a.m. on a Wednesday sophomore year. We just ordered D.P. Dough and it was set to arrive in 30 minutes. I was hangry. We had been working through a problem set since 8 PM, and I was emotionally done. I was stuck, we were getting nowhere, and I was questioning why I chose engineering. The people I was studying with were some other students that participated in the BRIDGE program at the same time I did, or as I call them, some of my BRIDGE family. We had a quick vent session, picked up each other’s pieces, and promised each other that this too shall pass, and we needed to push through. If not for us, but for the culture.
(2) I visited a middle school at the end of sophomore year with a hands-on activity and a story about how engineers help change the world. I vividly remember one girl, who came up to me after my presentation and said “Miss, so you’re an engineer?” I nodded. She said “I want to be an engineer just like you.”
These two hallmarks showed me the importance of community and the importance of role models. Community gets us through our darkest hour, and outshines our brightest moments. Through EDOC, I hope to continue to create opportunities for students to build community and find their families away from home. Many of our students are first generation, are ‘the only’ in their classes, or may not have many other mentors or support systems. I also hope to continue EDOC’s mission of letting everyone know they are role models, and mentor up and mentor down. Every individual can have an impact on another person; you never know whose life you can change.
What makes EDOC such a unique and crucial piece to the School of Engineering?
UConn has one of a handful of Diversity, Outreach, or Inclusion Centers dedicated to a School/College of Engineering in the country. When you look at what we’ve done over the past decade, and what Kevin has done since 2004, we have had a tremendous impact on students through our ever-growing programming. One of the things that makes us unique is how much trust, power, and autonomy we give students. There are not many other universities that would let undergraduate students be fully in charge of nearly every detail for an event that serves hundreds of children and their families in the community. Or, voice their ideas for a brand new large scale event (i.e. Sisters in STEM), and provide support and funding to bring it into fruition. We provide so many opportunities for students to learn different skills and grow, such as through serving as a Pre-Engineering Program (PEP) teacher where you learn to actually develop classroom curriculum, to working in the office where you learn everything from making a Pivot Table in Excel, to maintaining a website. We also provide a suite of courses, such as ENGR 3025 – Engineering for Impact, which is catered to their leadership needs and goals, and ENGR 3020, which is Confidence and Communication Skills. I’m so proud of what EDOC is, and what it will continue to grow to be as we expand programming to reach and support even more students.
You were one of the founders of Engineering Ambassadors here. How have you seen that group grow, and what do you see as the future of that organization now that you’ll be focused on them and other programs administered by EDOC?
I went back through my emails recently, and found that our very first EA meeting was September 2, 2010. It is wild to see we are approaching our 10th birthday. In the beginning there were a handful of us that were dedicated to the mission (shout out to Danica Chin [Plaskolite], Kayla Johnson [Pratt & Whitney], Dan Jaramillo [Pratt & Whitney], Nick Clements [Hexcel], Cara Redding [Pratt & Whitney], Josh Leveillee [Univ. Illinois, Urbana-Champaign] Dave Golfin [Pratt & Whitney], Alex Brittain [Global Foundries], Kim Sayre [US Government], Kim Reindl [Collins Aerospace], and many others) , now we have over 200 students who are in new branches called Presentation Team (which primarily focuses on off-campus interactions with middle school students), Tour Guides (which primarily focuses on on-campus, personalized experiences with high school students and their families), and Greater Body (which supports on-campus activities, and programming such as STEM Night at the CT Science Center, and Engineers Week at the Storrs Campus). We’ve recently even initiated expanding Engineering Ambassadors, or STEM Ambassadors at the Stamford and Avery Point campuses to better serve and reach CT schools in those areas.
Looking forward, I am excited to collaborate more with PK-12 teachers, the Neag School of Education, and CETL to create an ecosystem of teaching, learning and mentoring. We’d love to be able to train ambassadors to understand Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) so that we can work with educators to better design activities, presentations and conversations around what kids are currently learning in school. We’d also love to provide a community of practice for PK-12 teachers around the state so that teachers feel appreciated and supported, and know how they can support and help their students go to college, and become future STEM studiers and STEMinists.
Why do you think you’ve stayed at UConn so long? What is it about this University and School that makes you so invested?
When I needed someone to turn to, there were people that not only answered my questions, but took me under their wing to help me to fly. There are amazing, selfless individuals such as Aida Ghiaei and Kevin McLaughlin who invest their entire souls for students to stand up and shine. Everyone deserves that mentor and advocate, and I’d like to stand alongside them to be that person for others. At UConn, you’re not a number, and if you volunteer your time to help, UConn will always have your back and reward you. I had no issues finding funding for my Masters or my PhD because of the support at UConn, and even now, seeing that the UConn School of Engineering still hired me in the middle of a pandemic while other universities are furloughing their staff, rescinding offers, and freezing hiring, shows UConn’s values and commitment to me, and to others they care about.
Of course UConn has areas for growth, particularly in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, but I see avenues for change that I can be a part of, and I can’t say that about everywhere else. I’m excited by the leadership of Dean Kazerounian and Dean Burkey, and their investment in programs and courses I’ve helped pitch such as the John Lof Leadership Academy for Graduate Students, or the BOSS LADI (Building our Sister’s Strength – Leveraging Adversity, Diversity, and Intellect) class for underrepresented women in STEM. UConn loves, and UConn loves hard.
Has it always been your dream to be a professor and mentor to engineering students who are underrepresented minorities? Why? What was your inspiration?
As an undergrad, after a few years of volunteering for events like Multiply Your Options (MYO) and for NSBE and EA, I realized I loved teaching. Senior year, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, so I applied for Graduate School, Teach for America, and positions in industry. I was accepted to Teach for America, and was set to be a science teacher in Newark, NJ. Shortly after, I was accepted to be an EAGLES Fellow, which was a dual degree M.S. program in Italy and at UConn. I was incredibly torn, because I was excited to teach the kids, but I was also thrilled to be accepted to get an M.S. in Italy. I turned to then Dean Mun Choi who gave me one of the greatest pieces of advice I’ve ever heard, “The more you learn, the more you can teach others.” That advice kicked off my graduate school career, as well as fueled my interests in engineering education. Now, as I’ve been sharing my career plans with some of my current undergraduate mentees, I saw their eyes light up when I say I wanted to be a professor. Many expressed excitement to have a professor “like me,” which can mean a lot of things from identity (Afro-Latina, child of immigrants), to one deeply invested in individual success and well-being. I love using #ILookLikeAnEngineer or #ILookLikeAProfessor because I am breaking stigmas and stereotypes that exist in these domains, and showing students they can be one too.
Now that you’ve landed your dream job, what do you hope to accomplish here at the School of Engineering?
Many of my aims come from a coalition of alumni who care (some I listed before), my mentees, and my mentors. I touched on many of my aims throughout this interview, but to summarize:
Collaborate with Dean Burkey, Dean Leslie Shor, Dean Kazerounian and others to include teamwork and communication skills in undergraduate and graduate courses to minimize incidents such as microaggressions, and maximize belongingness, effectiveness, and productivity.
Use evidence-based research to both assess and improve our current diversity, equity, inclusion and outreach efforts.
Coordinate with other talented folx at EDOC (shout out to Esther Chang) to develop a suite of workshops, programs, courses, and trainings that uplift, inspire, and push forward individuals spanning the gamut of PK-12 students, PK-12 teachers and guidance counselors, undergraduates, graduates, staff, and faculty.
Many people say they want life to return back to ‘normal’ after COVID-19. I’ve seen others say ‘normal’ is not an option, because it includes systemic inequities in our health care, in our education, and in our access to basic needs. I agree, ‘normal’ is not an option, only forward, where empathy, communication, and progress are at the core of all we are, and all we do.
John Lof Leadership Academy (JLLA) goes virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic. During these difficult times, JLLA will be turning their Spring curriculum virtual using platforms such as Webex and Zoom. The group will be connecting members with training on conflict resolution, resource management, mentoring vs. micromanaging, and ethics vs. pragmatism. JLLA continues to work with speakers from and outside of UConn to lead these unique and highly individualized workshops.
On April 24, 2020, JLLA held its first virtual workshop titled conflict resolution. The workshop was planned by JLLA president Randi Mendes. This was the second workshop on conflict resolution for the group. She brought in speaker Donna Douglass Williams, J.D from the UConn Ombudsperson office. Donna has over 20 years of experience as an ombudsperson, attorney, mediator, trainer, facilitator, and presenter. She has also served as an Ombudsperson at the World Health Organization and as the Inaugural Ombudsperson for the Green Climate Fund.
Randi Mendes said that she felt that it was important to bring Donna into the workshop. “Conflict between yourself and others, as well as mediating conflict between those you lead can be a common occurrence.” She added, “Many, including myself, do not always feel confident in handling or approaching conflict. I felt it was important to give members of JLLA a platform to learn the skills they need to feel empowered to face it as future leaders.”
The two-hour training focused on changing the mindset of conflict and learning how to communicate effectively during the conflict. She challenged the group to look at conflict as a problem two people are trying to solve, rather than the person as the source of conflict. She taught the group the different types of conflict response styles in order to explain how to communicate with others who may approach conflict differently. These styles include competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. Finally, she emphasized using non-violent communication (NVC) as a form of communicating through conflict. NVC was developed by Marshall Rosenberg as a “communications technique interceded to frame conversations that results in mutual respect, understanding, and the peaceful resolution of conflict”.
Member Erik Ammermann said, “the theme of controlling your mindset and emotions when approaching conflict and is something I will be conscious of in future situations. A conflict does not always need to be viewed in negative connotations as I thought previously but as something unavoidable and inevitable to be used as an opportunity to resolve issues in one’s life and grow through.”
By: Allison O’Donnell, Written Communications Specialist, UConn School of Engineering
JLLA member Leila Daneshmandi has been selected as a 2020 Finalist in the Collegian Innovation and Leadership category for the 16th annual Women of Innovation (WOI) program.
The WOI committee recognizes women innovators, role models and leaders in STEM fields- science, technology, engineering and math. The women nominated have also made advances and promote equitability, diversity and inclusivity in the STEM arena.
As a Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. candidate, her accomplishments have been recognized by a panel of judges from over 150 nominations. The recipient of the Collegian Innovation and Leadership award must demonstrate inventiveness or creativity within the STEM field.
Daneshmandi’s leadership and ingenuity is demonstrated by her status as a Co-Founder and COO of Encapsulate LLC. Her company personalizes cancer therapy by growing cancerous cells outside the patient’s body to evaluate the body’s response to various chemotherapy drugs prior to treatment.
Encapsulate has previously been recognized by the prestigious 2019 International Space Station U.S. Laboratory and Boeing “Technology in Space” Prize, awarding Daneshmandi’s company and one other company $500,000 and the opportunity to conduct research projects onboard the International Space Station (ISS).
By: Allison O’Donnell, Written Communications Specialist, UConn School of Engineering
Stephany Santos (she/her/hers) is a sixth-year Ph.D. student in Biomedical Engineering from Middletown, CT and is currently JLLA’s Vice President. She is a Ford Foundations Fellow and conducts research on the characterizations of cartilage and arthritis in the im Lab under David M. Pierce, Ph.D.
In her role as Vice President, she has been able to explore various educational tools to both maximize the development of JLLA members, and quantify the impact the academy has on members’ leadership development. Santos uses the elements of the science of learning and metacognition to prepare her for the career aspiration of academia.
Santos was once told that “behind every great doctor is a great engineer,” which is why she chose this method of contributing to the medical realm. Additionally, human interactions play a major role in the outcomes of every leadership and engineering scenario. She says that JLLA is an important program because of the emphasis on interpersonal competencies.
“Leadership is a big part of engineering because teamwork is a big part of engineering,“ said Santos. “It is a critical part of the engineering-design process.” Workshops are an integral aspect of getting active experience. Santos says that “practicing navigating different scenarios is the best way to prepare and develop.”
Becoming a supportive leader was also important to her, as she is involved with outreach.Santos helped found Engineering Ambassadors, and currently serves as a co-advisor for the program. Additionally,she mentours the undergraduate UConn chapters for the National Society of Black Engineers(NSBE), Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).
JLLA’s diverse population creates a richness of different perspectives. “It is so important to be able to build those bridges and connect with other people who are different,” said Santos. “Being able to leverage experience with diversity is what leadership is all about.”