Two Division faculty members earn 2023 USC Mentoring Awards for Faculty Mentoring Graduate Students.
BY JAMIE WETHERBE MA ’04
AS ALMOST ANY TROJAN KNOWS, mentorship at USC is a team sport. Recently, two faculty members from the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy — Associate Professor Nina Bradley ’75 and Professor Francisco Valero-Cuevas — received 2023 USC Mentoring Awards for Faculty Mentoring Graduate Students for their dedication to this central aspect of their work as educators of the next generation of leading scientists.
The award recognizes mentors who foster an engaging, supportive and inclusive academic environment for graduate students — and is bestowed on faculty members by previous recipients of the mentoring award, making it even more meaningful.
“It’s our responsibility to help others improve themselves and improve the world,” says Valero-Cuevas, who has a joint appointment at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Alfred E. Mann Department of Biomedical Engineering. “We’re fortunate to be in an environment that’s committed to that. In addition to what I’m able to train my students in, my goal is to surround students with colleagues and co-mentors who teach them things that I cannot.”
Bradley agrees that mentoring is truly a group effort.
“It isn’t about any one thing that I have done,” Bradley says of earning the award. “I am so grateful that our faculty is committed to being mentors, and that our students are willing to participate in building mentor relationships with faculty.”
While it’s important for Bradley to tap into USC’s wider network, she also strives to cultivate personal connections to understand the unique challenges and goals each student brings to the classroom.
“You get to see that when meeting one on one,” she says. “I love bragging to my friends about what wonderful things I know our students will accomplish in their lives — and that gives me great hope for the future.”
In addition to nurturing personal relationships, Valero-Cuevas encourages mentees to go beyond being participants in their education to becoming leaders in their chosen field.
“The expectation is they will transform themselves from being consumers of information to generators of knowledge,” he says. “I expect them to reach a level where they’re teaching me something new.”
This sentiment rings true for Sudarshan Dayanidhi MS ’10, PhD ’12, one of Valero-Cuevas’ mentees. While pursuing his Ph.D., Dayanidhi worked with pediatric researchers at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, thanks, in part, to Valero-Cuevas.
“Francisco was an exemplary mentor in that he gave me the freedom and opportunities to develop our research, but knew when to intervene for help,” says Dayanidhi, now a research scientist at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab, a premier rehabilitation hospital in the country; and assistant professor at Northwestern University.
In addition to ongoing guidance, Valero-Cuevas supported several trips to Stockholm required for the large study in typical development of dexterity, which was later published in the Journal of Neurophysiology. “This was the result of his mentorship and support,” Dayanidhi says.
Beyond supporting big ideas, Na-hyeon (Hannah) Ko PhD ’16, says Valero-Cuevas was pivotal, particularly when she considered leaving the PhD program.
Being a clinician en route to her Ph.D. in the sciences, Ko, a mentee of Valero-Cuevas, was having difficulty grasping the engineering side of her studies, and considered transitioning to physical therapy and neuroscience.
“The first question Francisco asked me was, ‘What do you need from me?’” recalls Ko, now an assistant professor at California State University, Fresno. “He didn’t try to pursuade me either way.”
Ko requested more one-on-one tutoring and guided interactions with other engineers in the lab to overcome her engineering challenges. “And that’s exactly what he provided,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I believe in you, if you’re in; I’m in, too.’”
Bradley also wants students to feel comfortable coming to her with challenges. “I always impart that I’m available,” she says. “I provide a safe space for them to explore whatever they’re struggling with.”
Mentee and soon-to-be graduate Hailey Chong DPT ’23 says she valued Bradley’s open door — and open mind — policy.
“Having someone excited to hear about my PT school journey and willing to ride the ups and downs with me was invaluable, especially when I’d share my stresses and hardships.” Chong says. “She would intentionally reach out to me each semester, just to see how I was doing.”
Bradley, once a varsity cheerleader, wants to put forward the same enthusiasm when rooting for her students — a skill she learned from her own mentor.
“As a new graduate student, I really lacked self-confidence and it helped me to see the strengths she saw,” Bradley says. “She believed in the importance of my research. I didn’t necessarily grow up in an environment where I heard that, and my mentor modeled that for me.”
Bradley wants students to believe they can do anything they set their heart to, and for Chong, that’s exactly what Bradley did.
“She encouraged me to apply for a scholarship and for a competitive clinical placement, both of which I didn’t feel impressive enough for and would have not considered on my own,” says Chong, who received both the scholarship and placement. “I think the most valuable lesson I learned from her was to be confident in my accomplishments, to not diminish them, and to not be afraid to strive for higher goals.”