Carnegie Mellon University

Celebration of Education logo on Tartan wave

April 19, 2024

Celebration of Education Awards

By Emily Liu

Krista Burns

The Barbara Lazarus Award for Graduate Student and Junior Faculty Mentoring

Recipient: Ronald D. (Shawn) Blanton, Associate Department Head for Research, Joseph F. and Nancy Keithley Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, College of Engineering

“Coming from a smaller state school, I did not think I would be a good fit for a top engineering school,” said Danielle Duvalsaint, who earned her Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University under Shawn Blanton’s supervision. “However, I received an email from Dr. Blanton encouraging me to apply after seeing my profile on the Graduate Enrollment Management fellowship database.”

Blanton continuously provided valuable advice and resources during Duvalsaint’s studies at CMU, even as her career goals shifted from academia to industry. He also had Duvalsaint present her work in several different settings, which helped her overcome her fear of public speaking. She’s now a design for test engineer at Nvidia.

Duvalsaint is just one of the many students and faculty members in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) for whom Shawn Blanton has been an outstanding pillar of support. Haywood Hunter, one of Blanton’s former master’s students, remembers when Blanton provided him $150 for groceries during a period of financial hardship. Marc Dandin, an assistant professor in ECE, expresses gratitude to Blanton for helping him secure his first major external grant. “Put simply, Professor Blanton’s interest in my success at CMU is unmistakable; he carefully points me in the right direction no matter what issue I bring to him,” Dandin said.

Blanton is committed to enhancing the representation of underrepresented minority (URM) groups in science and engineering. Every year for more than two decades, he has visited the annual National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) convention, as well as his alma mater, Calvin University, to encourage prospective graduate students to consider CMU. He has also recruited students from other URM-centric events, such as the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), the Tapia workshop for URM and low-income students, and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). Once these students arrive at CMU, Blanton is often one of their key points of contact or even their primary advisor.

“I have watched the university go from having a dismal number of members of color in engineering to becoming a nationally recognized college for having diverse members, and we have Shawn's leadership to thank for that,” said Sossena Wood, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

During the pandemic, Blanton supported ECE students by organizing online social events to help them de-stress and build a sense of community. He also provided mentorship to The Neighborhood Academy (TNA), a middle and high school for underserved students not far from CMU, helping families ensure that they received their stimulus checks.

“Shawn could easily have paid much more attention to his own research and teaching and avoided all of the extra time he spent on mentoring others. But that is not in Shawn’s DNA,” said James Garrett, Jr., provost and chief academic officer of CMU. “He is compelled to help other students and faculty of color to be recruited, welcomed, and supported at Carnegie Mellon. He goes well above the call of duty because he truly cares about helping the next generations succeed at Carnegie Mellon.”

Graduate Student Service Award

Mansi Sood, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, College of Engineering

Isabel E. Murdock, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, College of Engineering

After attending several conferences with the common goal of supporting women in computing fields, Ph.D. students Mansi Sood and Isabel Murdock wanted to organize a similar event at CMU. The two worked together to secure funding, invite faculty speakers, and recruit volunteers, and in February of 2023, Sood and Murdock’s team hosted the first-ever Pittsburgh Women in Mathematics and Computing Symposium (WMCS). The conference brought together 54 attendees and 15 faculty speakers from various scientific disciplines across multiple universities throughout Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh WMCS received overwhelmingly positive feedback from attendees and speakers alike. Through an anonymous survey, respondents showed appreciation for the opportunity to exchange ideas and build connections with fellow women in STEM. “It was truly empowering to speak with them and learn about their personal experiences—hardships, failures, successes, and much more,” one attendee wrote. “I would love to attend such events again in the future.”

Sood is a final-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), researching ways to make sociotechnical systems more trustworthy and efficacious. She has served on the ECE Diversity, Inclusion, and Outreach (DIO) committee, launching the ECE peer-mentoring program and organizing social events to foster a sense of community in the department. Sood has also served as an event coordinator for the ECE Graduate Organization (EGO), hosting painting fundraisers to support local nonprofit organizations.

Murdock is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in ECE, researching intervention strategies for mitigating the spread of misinformation on social media. She has mentored undergraduate students as an ECE peer advisor and provided department tours as an ECE Student Ambassador Tour Guide. She has volunteered at multiple ECE Ph.D. open houses, providing campus tours in 2022 and organizing a scavenger hunt in 2023. Murdock has also assisted ECE outreach with SPARK Saturdays, weekend lab events that expose high school students to the field of ECE.

“They have demonstrated a commitment to service and diversity, inclusion, and outreach efforts throughout their time at Carnegie Mellon University,” said Giulia Fanti, an assistant professor in ECE who mentored Sood and Murdock as they organized the Pittsburgh WMCS.

Beyond CMU, Sood leads watercolor painting workshops at Creative Citizen Studios, an organization that supports artists with intellectual or developmental disabilities. She regularly sells her artwork and donates the proceeds to local food banks. Similarly, Murdock knits blankets for children in need through Project Linus, and has partnered with Voices Against Violence (VAV) to teach economically and socially disadvantaged youth about coding and video game design.

Sood and Murdock have volunteered at a combined 13 Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Middle School and High School Days, designing workshops that inspire girls to pursue careers in STEM.

“Together, they embody the best of our institutional values,” said Osman Yağan, a research professor in ECE who has served as a faculty advisor to both Sood and Murdock. “Their countless initiatives for supporting their peers and the broader community, amid pursuing deep and impactful research, is a testament to their extraordinary character, sincerity, strong ethics, and commitment to empowering those around them.”