2 mathematicians honored with Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards

Two faculty members from the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences were recognized as exceptional mentors by Arizona State University's Faculty Women’s Association. Julia Inozemtseva and Yi Zheng were honored with 2021 Outstanding Faculty Mentor Awards presented at a virtual ceremony on April 28.

“These two exemplary faculty members truly care about their students. They encompass every aspect of what a mentor should be,” said Donatella Danielli, school director and professor of mathematics. “They are most deserving of this honor and I am proud they are a part of our school.”

Julia Inozemtseva

Inozemtseva has served as a lecturer in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences since 2017, teaching a wide range of mathematics at the first- and second-year level, including college mathematics, pre-calculus, business math and engineering calculus.

She is the recipient of the 2020 Outstanding Lecturer Award in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She was also honored with the 2020 Outstanding Instruction and Service Award in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.

Over the past 10 years, she has taught in three different countries: Ukraine, Hungary and the United States. Her extensive international experience has helped her build an open-minded, culturally sensitive and people-centered worldview. This has resulted in a welcoming and supportive environment in her math classes at ASU.

Inozemtseva was nominated by her colleagues and students. Al Boggess recently completed an eight-year term as director of the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and hired her as a lecturer in 2017.

“What makes Julia so special? I would have to say that it is her keen ability to empathize and connect with her students. Her empathy is especially strong for students who have difficulties with math or adjusting to college due to cultural issues,” Boggess said. “Julia is from the Ukraine and has been in the U.S. for about nine years. She had to adjust to a new language and a new culture while pursuing a master's degree while teaching recitation classes at Georgia Southern University. She uses this experience to help first-generation college students and those with math phobias to adapt to new environments in a very effective manner.”

Undergraduate student Sam Lee enjoyed being in Inozemtseva’s mathematics classes for three consecutive semesters.

“She opened my eyes to so many amazing opportunities and made me appreciate math even more. At her recommendation I was able to attend my first math conference in Lincoln, Nebraska. She played a huge role in my journey to find what I am truly passionate about,” Lee said. “Professor Inozemtseva not only cares about her students but encourages them to delve into opportunities that don't come around very often. It is amazing having such a supportive professor who I know always has my back.”

Inozemtseva mentors not only students but also her peers. Coming from Ukraine, she had to learn so many things on her own, adjust to new surroundings — new language, new people, new culture. She is deeply aware of how difficult this kind of transition can be, especially for newly hired lecturers, and even more so for those coming from different backgrounds.

“Imagine moving to a new country or new state during the middle of worldwide pandemic, and never setting foot on your new campus,” said President’s Professor Matthias Kawski. “Julia reaches out and invites them in, helps them find housing, drives them to ethnic supermarkets, connects them with the other colleagues — all the 'extra' things that help these new colleagues feel like they belong.”

Even during COVID-19, Inozemtseva safely planned a picnic in the park (with mask-wearing), meeting for yoga in the park and going for hikes to see the beautiful mountains and terrain of Arizona.

“For many, this was their first hike ever, and they were converts to this new outdoor activity that brings them closer to nature, and closer to each other,” Kawski said.

Inozemtseva also excels in mentoring in the broader sense. She has given public lectures to graduate students and new faculty on adjusting to U.S. academic culture.

“I really enjoy hearing Julia talk about her adjustments after moving to the U.S., which often include amusing stories about cultural misunderstandings,” Boggess said. “She uses humor in a very effective manner in bringing people from diverse cultures together. Through these stories, it is clear that she keenly understands and effectively conveys that our similarities as people are far greater than our differences.”

"I am very happy and honored to receive this award! It inspires me to work harder, to reach out to even more students that might need help and support, especially during these unusual times," Inozemtseva said.

"I love teaching at ASU, because I am capable of helping students using all possible resources from our school. A simple question by email, 'Do you need help?' might turn into an hours-long conversation in my office — about students' lives and their struggles. Then I start looking for ideas and tools to help my students. Together, we have applied for scholarships, internships, conferences, travel funds, tutoring opportunities and even jobs outside of ASU. Together we have studied not only math, but also bioinformatics, medicine, aerospace engineering and even ideas of feminism and Black Lives Matter — all in my office, due to the natural curiosity of my students.

"I love making connections with students. They are each so different but usually have one thing in common — they need some place, or someone, where they can have a safe and comfortable environment, where they can talk and don't get any judgment back, where they feel support and care, maybe with a cup of tea and lots of chocolate.

"I am happy that I can provide this space and this comfort in their lives. Just a little bit of kindness, teamwork and support — and these students bring their best in their studies. Not surprisingly, this makes them happier. And knowing that someone is not only rooting for their success, but also ready to back them up during hard times, makes them feel more confident and brave. This is how they start taking the most difficult STEM classes, applying for internships and even presenting at conferences.

"Changing people's lives is what makes this job exciting and rewarding. I am especially happy that I can serve as a role model and help underrepresented groups in STEM."

Yi Zheng

portrait of Yi Zheng

Zheng joined the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in 2014 and currently serves as an associate professor and honors faculty.

Zheng studies theories and practices in educational and psychological testing. Examples of her research are developing tests/surveys/scales, developing psychometric procedures for testing program operations, and developing automated test assembly algorithms.

Zheng is particularly specialized in computerized adaptive testing (CAT), which is a cutting-edge technology where computer algorithms are created to tailor a test in real time to each individual test-taker. Capitalizing on digital technology, CAT also provides great flexibility in test design and administration, ease in data management, and ever-emerging digital experiences for test takers.

Zheng was nominated for the award by her students. Graduate research assistant Kevin Close is pursuing a PhD in the Learning, Literacies, and Technologies program of Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, focused on digital adaptive assessments and nationwide teacher evaluation systems based on high-stakes tests.

“To me, an outstanding mentor is someone who can balance the difficult line between giving candid advice and providing encouragement. An outstanding mentor is someone who cares about their mentee holistically, someone who sees the strengths on their mentees, but also cares for their well-being in tough times,” Close said. “Dr. Zheng balances that line because she develops such an authentic relationship with her mentees. She sets the example for her mentees by showing her own vulnerabilities and being honest about her own life, which sets the stage for her mentees to feel OK making mistakes as they take risks and work through the difficult unstructured problems that arise during research.”

Hyunjung Cheon is a doctoral student in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and currently serves as a research assistant in the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety working on projects examining secondary intervention programing in Latin America and Caribbean countries.

“Dr. Zheng believes that mentoring the next generation of scholars is an important responsibility, and this is evident through her work both in and outside the classroom,” Cheon said. “She is an excellent mentor to students and has helped fuel the drive of the next generation of social science scholars to engage in meaningful research on statistics and education.”

Zheng’s contribution to developing and disseminating advanced psychometric diagnostic tools through the open-source platforms extended her research outreach to the people who most need these tools. For example, she has created a CAT program called Concerto, an open-source online adaptive testing platform, as well as published the "NPCD R package," another freely available open-source statistical software program.

“This freely accessible advanced adaptive testing software substantially impacted the global communities, especially for the researchers and practitioners in nonprofit organizations relying on open-source platforms due to the limited resource and budget,” doctoral student Byoung-gyu Gong said. “I believe that such dedication is not possible without a dedication to the common good.”

"I am deeply honored and encouraged to receive the award because I take mentoring very close to my heart," Zheng said. "I met many great mentors during my own academic adventure and learned how a mentor can widen a young person's horizon by offering advice, support, and inspiration at critical times of their life and career. I aspire to be a mentor who puts students first, guides and supports their endeavors inclusively, and brings out their best potential.

"I also aspire to be a role model by practicing the highest standards in my own work. Being a young faculty woman of color myself, my success and positivity especially encouraged and inspired students from the underrepresented populations. They see me, and they know they can do it, too. Receiving the award encourages me to continue practicing my mentoring philosophy, and inspiring students to be serious researchers, devoted teachers, principled decision-makers, and empathetic, resilient human beings."

Rhonda Olson
Rhonda.Olson@asu.edu