COMMENCEMENT 2014 >>

Mentoring pays personal, professional dividends for Brown

By Megan McRainey | Emory Report | May 7, 2014

Peter J. Brown, professor of anthropology and global health, is described by his students as a rare blend of cheerleader and critic. He treats his students as equals from the day they first walk nervously into his office, taking a personal interest in their lives and careers. He'll not only be the first to cheer a student's success but also be the first to point out that they're capable of better. He encourages his advisees "to learn how to take care of themselves, yet he never leaves us out on a limb," writes Leslie Jo Weaver, a former student.

Brown is the recipient of this year's George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring, established in 1997 by John T. Glover '68C.

"One of the greatest pleasures of being a professor is working with students, both undergraduate and graduate students, and watching them develop," says Brown, who joined Emory in 1978. He describes being a mentor as "a difficult balance between three things": encouraging students in order to build their self-esteem, offering constructive criticism when needed, and "simply getting out of their way when they are smarter than you."

Svea Closser, a former student, notes Brown "has a gift for steering his students gently toward good ideas and away from bad ones, while never interfering with the process of learning and inspiration that allows students to own their work.

"As a teacher myself now, I know how hard this is," says Closser, who is an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Middlebury College.

Leandris Liburd, another former student, also praised Brown's commitment to those he teaches.

"Dr. Brown is not afraid to resist and renounce prevailing wisdom or take a stand for what he believes is in the best interest of the students and the discipline," says Liburd, director of the Office of Minority Health and Health Equity at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Brown, whose work focuses on medical anthropology and global health, has mentored students in public health, medical anthropology and medicine. He says he aims to help pre-med students understand that individual health is wrapped up in a much larger system of social and cultural influences and inequalities.

Professors who spend a significant portion of their time mentoring students have less time for research and scholarship, Brown admits, but their impact on their academic fields is no less important.

"I decided a while back that you can write volumes of extremely specific research but when you look at how many people actually read that work, it's relatively small given the amount of effort that goes in to it," says Brown. "But one can invest in people, and that pays dividends."