Ohio State welding engineering student Sydney Coates works on a project in the lab while receiving instruction from her professor Carolin Fink, who was communicating with her via video chat on a phone.
Sydney Coates never saw herself as the presenting type. And then, this past November, she discovered she was.
After being encouraged to consider participating in the Undergraduate Research Festival by her mentor, Carolin Fink – assistant professor of Materials Science and Engineering – Coates presented her research into experimental weldability testing.
That research followed a summer of innovative ways Fink helped Coates continue her research from home during campus shutdown for COVID-19. And this was all after Fink nominated and helped Coates receive the John Lippold Award in the spring of 2020.
Fink found all of these opportunities after conversations about Coates’ aspirations.
“She’s helped me figure out exactly what my interests aligned with and then has given me a lot of opportunities,” said Coates, a senior majoring in welding engineering and undergrad researcher within Fink’s Weld Cracking and Weldability research group. “She doesn’t necessarily push you to do them, but she shows you the opportunities and tells you, ‘I’ll help with whatever you need.’ She’s just amazing.”
During the 2020-21 year with COVID-19 protocols, Fink found ways to keep her mentees on track toward their goals.
“Mentoring is one of the most rewarding parts of my faculty position,” Fink said. “The pandemic increased conversations about after graduation because students have been worried about the economy. So they’re looking for input.”
Input over the last academic year has meant weekly Zoom calls with her research group, Zoom and phone calls with other students she supports outside that group and regular emails to help students with any questions they have.
“I try to start the conversation where the student is and help them find the avenue they want to go down,” Fink said. “Should they go to grad school? Where should they apply? Do they need industry contacts or letters of recommendation? It’s all about best positioning for their future.”
That positioning is equal parts learning the craft and discovering opportunities and how to pursue them. That could mean safely continuing research during a pandemic or breaking into a field dominated by men.
Fink, who came to Ohio State from Germany, was the first female faculty member hired within the welding engineering program in 2017. The program has since hired a second female faculty member and has increased its female student base, which is still pretty low at 6%. However, that figure is growing.
“In spring semester (2020), I had a whole row of female students, which was new,” Fink said.
Fink said people often ask her why it took so long to hire a woman faculty member within the welding engineering program. She cites a lack of communication about the opportunity,
“I got into the field because I had a role model,” Fink said. “But mentors can be even more effective, not just in bringing in new populations to certain fields but just by pointing out there are opportunities even though you don’t see anyone who looks like you. But why wouldn’t there be an opportunity there? That’s where mentorship can be important.”
Fink mentors anyone who comes her way in whatever way they need. This past year, she helped one of her mentees, Owen Murdock, find contacts for an internship in Germany, where he wanted to continue his welding engineering work.
She also helps students outside her area of expertise. A few years ago, she signed up to mentor through the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program, in which she began mentoring Alfonso Tinoco Lopez, an industrial and systems engineering major three years ago.
They recently spent an hour on the phone getting caught up.
“The biggest benefit to having Dr. Fink as my mentor has been engaging in conversations with her, getting a second opinion from someone who has already been through what I am going through,” Tinoco Lopez said. “I am able to explore different possibilities I otherwise would not. It’s the whys and hows Dr. Fink has asked me that have helped me the most when exploring different scenarios.”