His door is always open. He creates a community among his students. He consistently takes time to guide or reassure students in their work.
These are just a few examples from the nominations that poured in from graduate students hoping Tsvetan Bachvaroff would win the first University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award. Their words paid off.
On the eve of the 2018 commencement, graduate student Kaila Noland presented the inaugural award to the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology assistant research professor. Tsetso, as he is best known at the Baltimore-based lab, accepted the honor with a humble smile as the crowd watching called for a speech.
“Working with the students is what we’re here for. It’s my honor,” he said before turning back to Noland. “You guys teach me more than I’ve taught you.”
The idea for the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award emerged last fall. UMCES’ Graduate Student Council wanted to create an award that recognized faculty for their commitment to students beyond the classroom, explained Blake Clark, council co-chairman with fellow Horn Point Laboratory student, Melanie Jackson.
“The students were in agreement with wanting to be able to recognize UMCES faculty independent of the teaching aspect of the graduate student experience,” Clark said. “As a research institution, a lot goes on outside the classroom that is super important in terms of our research and career development.”
The council put out a call to the rest of the graduate student body in April asking for nominations in the form of a 300-word essay. The majority of the nominations the council received were for Bachvaroff.
I can ask him questions probably 8, 9, 10 times a day and he never gets frustrated. He takes the time to make sure each student has what they need in order to get their project taken care of.
One nomination read: “Although he is the official advisor to only a few students, Tsetso spends a lot of time mentoring other students at IMET. His office is always open and is a popular place for students to meet.”
“Once in my first year, I asked him for help with a bioinformatics problem that couldn't be resolved by currently available software,” another nomination read. “I had no programming experience at the time, but we sat down and he wrote a program for me from scratch, explaining what each line of code does as he wrote them. Then we tested the program on my data and he walked me through the process of debugging. This hands-on experience helped me to understand the process of programming and shows that Tsetso is a strong believer of learning by doing.”
Noland, an IMET/University of Maryland, Baltimore student who presented the award, said she feels like Bachvaroff does a lot of work without seeking recognition.
“I can ask him questions probably 8, 9, 10 times a day and he never gets frustrated,” she said. “He takes the time to make sure each student has what they need in order to get their project taken care of.”
Ana Sosa, an UMCES/IMET graduate student, submitted one of the nominations that helped win Bachvaroff the award.
“I remember the first course I took with him, we learned about algae and pigments and I had to present a paper on the carotenoid pigments in saffron,” she said in her nomination. “During the last week of the semester, he organized a get together at IMET for everyone in the course to come over and share some food and talk about the semester. He also made us all saffron rice so we could try it and enjoy the pigments and aroma of its chemical compounds.”
Daniela Tizabi, an UMCES/IMET graduate student, said Bachvaroff has always been willing to answer questions, even after class.
“His door is always open to students and everyone appreciates the funny analogies he uses to explain difficult concepts,” she said. “For example, comparing not-so-useful sequence analysis programs to flavored coffee!”
Sam Major, also an UMCES/IMET graduate student, called Bachvaroff “a phenomenal instructor and faculty member.”
“He’ll always drop whatever he’s doing to help us out with our data or just to chat,” Major said. “It’s also fun to bounce ideas off of him because he’s always thinking about ways we can improve our own skills, as well as guide us through the right analyses to answer our scientific questions.”
A key piece of advice Major said he’s offered students: “Always touch your sequences with your eyeballs first.”
“I think this piece of wisdom is applicable beyond the bioinformatics realm,” Major said. “It teaches us to be more investigative and cautious of accepting whatever information may be handed to us.”