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Vicki Powers named Cuttino Award recipient for outstanding mentorship
profile image of Vicki Powers

Vicki Powers’ legacy of stellar student support, especially for women in STEM, has a far-reaching impact at Emory and beyond, earning the math professor this year’s top honor for mentorship.

— Photo by Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video.

When Dionne Bailey started her first job as a math professor, she placed a photograph of herself and her Emory doctoral advisor on her office shelf.

Twenty-three years later, her photo with Vicki Powers is still there.

“Every once in a while, I’ll glance at it and think I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” says Bailey, now a professor of mathematics at Angelo State University in Texas. “Vicki has made a huge difference and I'm glad that's being recognized.” 

As mentor to hundreds of undergraduate math majors — along with numerous graduate students and faculty — Powers’ generosity has earned her recognition as the 2024 George P. Cuttino Award for Excellence in Mentoring recipient. Established by John T. Glover 68C in 1997 in honor of the late Emory history professor, the award celebrates exemplary mentorship.

“She is one of the most unselfish people I know. She said ‘yes’ to anything I asked of her. She doesn’t just say, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it’ and do a cursory job. She puts everything she has into it,” says co-nominator James Nagy, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Mathematics and chair of the Department of Mathematics.

Known for her work in real algebraic geometry and positive polynomials, Powers’ research has been used in applications of control theory such as robot design. She’s also served as a mainstay on numerous key university committees.

“Vicki’s willingness to give to the Emory community and collegiality are unmatched,” says co-nominator Vaidy Sunderam, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Mathematics and chair of the Department of Computer Science.

Born at the Emory Clinic adjacent to campus, Powers eventually returned to spend more than three decades as a mathematics professor.

“Emory has been such a wonderful place to work. I've loved every minute of it. This award is a nice recognition and capstone for my time here,” says Powers, who plans to retire next year.

Mentor and teacher

Ha Nguyen struggled with imposter syndrome when she started graduate school at Emory.

“I’m a normal person who works hard and I was comparing myself to geniuses. I wondered, ‘Am I good enough?’” says Nguyen, assistant professor of mathematics at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

At their first meeting, Powers asked not to be called doctor, but by her first name.

“She made me feel welcome from day one. Coming from Vietnam, it was such a big adjustment and in graduate school, you’re intimidated a bit. She made me feel comfortable sharing or asking questions,” Nguyen says.

Powers was also able to break down her high-level, complex research in a way that was easy to digest. “She shared her written explanation of her research so that I could model it in my earlier days, and took it upon herself to publish our work when I was adapting to my first job with a busy teaching assignment,” Nguyen says.

In 2010 Nguyen earned the Marshall Hall, Jr., Award recognizing outstanding teaching by a doctoral student in Emory’s mathematics department.

“Going from someone who was so intimidated to then receiving that award was a lot for me. I couldn’t have done that without Vicki,” she says. “She’s been an inspiration and phenomenal advisor. She stayed in touch after graduation and supported me through my ups and downs.”

Today, Powers’ influence can also be found in Nguyen’s classroom.

Nguyen’s current research interest in mathematics for social justice was inspired by Powers’ math and politics freshman seminar. But perhaps Powers’ most profound impact is on Nguyen’s relationships with her students.

“When I advise students, they share with me because they feel comfortable. Because of that, I can see their strengths and things that can improve. That’s what Vicki did for me,” she says.

Paving the way for women in STEM

When Powers began her career in 1987, she was one of two women in Emory’s then-joint mathematics and computer science department. She later became the first woman in her department to be promoted to full professor.

Her innumerable services to students and faculty paved a new path for other women in academics. Today, women faculty make up nearly half of Emory’s mathematics department. 

“In all STEM fields, women are severely underrepresented. It's an unusual thing to have someone of her stature go through the ranks, especially when she did,” Nagy says. “She’s been a fantastic mentor to so many women over the years.”

Powers says she didn’t feel treated differently by colleagues. However, the men in the department either had no children or had wives who cared for them.

“I was very careful not to inconvenience my department and had my kids in the summer,” Powers quips.

When Powers served as chair of the faculty concerns committee of the President's Commission for the Status of Women, she addressed some of the issues facing women academics.

“We actually started getting Emory to move towards having a definite maternity and paternity policy — which they do have now,” Powers says.

For doctoral students like Bailey, already raising two children when she got pregnant midway through graduate school, having an advisor with experience navigating those issues was important.

“She would share some of the struggles she had being a female in her discipline and raising two daughters. She gave me some insight into things I might face. She was always open and more like a real person as opposed to just my professor,” Bailey says.

In 2023, Bailey, the first woman professor in her department, won the Chancellor’s Council Distinguished Teaching Award at Texas Tech University System. She prepares secondary mathematics teachers for their certification.

She said Powers’ openness contributed to her approach to student relationships.

“I try to make my office just as accommodating because it is hard for students to feel comfortable crossing that threshold with a professor,” Bailey says.

Devoted to Emory

In her 36 years at Emory, Powers has served on nearly every committee in Emory College of Arts and Sciences.

She served on the strategic planning committee’s Faculty Excellence Working group (which she co-chaired), the Grievance Committee, the President’s Advisory Committee and the Educational Policy Committee.

Along with directing undergraduate studies for many years, Powers founded a graduate student seminar, served on the Dean’s Teaching Fellowship Selection Committee and regularly served as a teaching mentor for graduate student instructors.

“Her mentorship of entire cohorts of graduate students is legendary,” Sunderam says.

Powers has also impacted faculty development through the Tenure and Promotion Committee and the Lecture Track Promotion Committee. And she has served as a faculty senator.

“She's done so much over the years — it’s stunning,” Nagy says.

Powers says she has loved her time at Emory. “Sometimes I walk around the Quad and say to myself, ‘I can't believe I work here.’”

During an evaluation site visit, one reviewer was tasked with interviewing every member of the department.

“At the end of mine, the reviewer said, ‘I can't believe it. You're the only person I have talked to who is completely happy,’” Powers says.

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