Danielle Benoit, an associate professor of biomedical engineering who has provided research experiences for more than 80 undergraduates in her lab, is the second recipient of the College Award for Undergraduate Teaching and Research Mentorship. (University of Rochester photo / J. Adam Fenster)
Danielle Benoit says it's "an outstanding opportunity for everybody involved" when undergraduates do research in her lab.
Former students Tim Felong '14, Amanda Chen '14, and Janet Sorrells '17 will all vouch for that.
"I wouldn't be in medical school right now if it weren't for Danielle's mentorship," says Felong, now at the University at Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Chen, a graduate research fellow in biological engineering at MIT, says, "Danielle's lab was one of the biggest reasons why I chose to pursue a graduate degree. She gave me the opportunity to work on an independent project, publish a first-author paper, present at conferences, and more."
And, "the more time I spend in academia the more amazed I am with how Dr. Benoit managed to keep up with so many things," says Sorrells, now a graduate research fellow in bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "I'm very thankful for everything I learned from her."
Benoit, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, is this year's recipient of the College Award for Undergraduate Teaching and Research Mentorship at the University of Rochester.
The award, first presented last year, is funded by chemistry alumnus Frederick Lewis '68 (PhD) and his wife, Susan Rice Lewis. It salutes tenured faculty members in Arts, Sciences & Engineering who teach large, introductory classes as well as advanced seminars and independent study projects, and who mentor research experiences, especially those that involve laboratory training in the sciences and engineering. (Read more about this new award recognizing faculty for their mentorship. )
The award will be presented to Benoit at the Undergraduate Research Exposition on April 19 at the Welles-Brown Room of Rush Rhees Library.
Benoit "embodies the spirit of this award through her dedication to undergraduate learning through classroom teaching, research experiences, and mentoring," says Diane Dalecki, chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering. "The research training and mentoring that undergraduates receive from Professor Benoit primes them for continued success as graduate students and throughout their professional careers."
For example, several of the undergraduate students from her lab, including Chen and Sorrells, have received prestigious National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships to support their graduate studies.
Teaching at 'multiple levels'
Benoit, who joined the University of Rochester in 2010, develops therapeutic biomaterials for tissue regeneration and targeted drug delivery. For example, she and her collaborators developed a device that selectively delivers drugs to sites of bone resorption to heal fractures and treat osteoporosis. She has also pioneered the development of hydrogel-based engineered extracellular matrices for bone and salivary gland tissue regeneration.
She has been lead, corresponding, or co-author of more than 70 papers in top journals; has received numerous grants, including an NSF CAREER award; has garnered nine approved or pending patents; and was recently elected a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering.
She has provided research experiences for more than 80 undergraduates in her lab.
"For me, part and parcel of being a faculty member here is to teach on multiple levels, not just in the classroom but also in the lab, where I can teach undergraduate and graduate students alike the best, cutting-edge research practices," Benoit says.
Students say the benefits of working in the Benoit Lab extend beyond the research skills they learn.
"Danielle has always been my go-to mentor for all sorts of advice -- moral, social, intellectual -- and was a powerful advocate for me if I ever found myself in a challenging situation," Chen says.
Felong says he especially appreciated the "culture" of the lab, which was more like a "family environment. She takes the time to really get to know her students—their interests and hobbies. She hosts biannual parties, where you get to interact with her energy-packed, fun family. I think this openness and mutual appreciation for life inside and outside of work is really motivating for many people my age. I know it was for me."
Seeing the potential in students
In addition to mentoring students in her lab, Benoit teaches courses including Advanced Biomaterials, Controlled Release Systems, Research Methods, and, starting this spring, Cell and Tissue Engineering, which is the capstone course for biomedical engineering majors with concentrations in that subfield.
She also developed and taught for eight years a biomaterials course, required of all biomedical engineering majors, that typically enrolls about 70 students. She designed the laboratory components of the course so they would dovetail with a biomedical computation and statistics course students take at the same time.
"Students complete laboratories in biomaterials one week, and then analyze data they collected by applying statistical approaches from the other course the following week," Dalecki says. "This is an excellent pedagogical approach for students to understand how concepts they're learning in different classes combine to enhance their skills as an engineer."
Sorrells served as a teaching assistant for the biomaterials course under Benoit. She says Benoit brought the same level of "engagement" to the course that she brings to her lab. "She collected student feedback often and took it very seriously, trying different things to see how to best educate students and equip them with skills like scientific writing and knowledge of biomaterials."
Benoit also supervises a senior design team each year, meeting with teams at least weekly, guiding them in their design and engineering, and mentoring them on teamwork and project management.
Perhaps the ultimate measure of a good teacher is the ability to inspire, motivate, and serve as a role model.
"Danielle suggested that I apply for the Research Initiative Award for Undergraduates, which is much like a grant application," Felong says. "I never would have thought that I had a shot at winning that grant, but I applied and ended up getting it." Benoit, as well as Andrew Shubin '16 (PHD), '18M (MD), the graduate student with whom Benoit paired Felong in her lab "saw potential in me that I didn't see in myself."
Chen says she "often reflects on mentorship behaviors that I hope to build into my own management style -- now as I work with undergraduate trainees (at MIT), but also in my future career. And I find myself often thinking back to my experiences in Danielle's lab."