Along a Path Forward

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With steadfast commitment, Professor Anna Harding (left) has shepherded Ph.D. student Kelly Gonzales, a mother of two, toward her doctoral degree in public health. (Photo: Jan Sonnemaier)

September 15, 2008

Anna Harding approaches mentoring with discipline and heart

By Lee Sherman

The first conversation between Kelly Gonzales and Professor Anna Harding went on so long the phone died.

The graduate student had hit some setbacks in her journey toward a Ph.D. in public health. She was seeking a fresh perspective. In Harding's voice she heard genuine concern. Like a river topping its levy, Gonzales' story began to pour across the landline from her Portland home to Harding's Corvallis office. An hour went by and then: silence. Her cordless phone had conked out. Unfazed, Harding called Gonzales right back on her cell.

The two-hour conversation put Gonzales back on track. "She just let me talk," she says. "I was so grateful."

Graduate Mentoring Award

Thus began one of the powerful student-faculty relationships for which Harding earned the Graduate School's coveted Excellence in Graduate Mentoring Award for 2008. Patient listening is just one of the many mentoring tools Harding has honed as a professor and graduate coordinator for the College of Health and Human Sciences' Department of Public Health. Gonzales also credits her adviser's lofty standards, pragmatic flexibility and rocklike commitment with steering her toward her degree despite a sometimes-skeptical husband, the birth of two children and the 90-mile city-to-campus drive for graduate committee meetings.

"I have a great level of respect and admiration for my graduate students," says Harding, who earned her own Ph.D. at Oregon State while raising three kids in the midst of a divorce. "Many of them are juggling careers, families, children. It's my job to help them pursue their dreams, even when the route to those dreams is curvy."

Support for her research

The support and hard work paid off in June when Gonzales won a prestigious fellowship from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to complete her dissertation on diabetes and discrimination among Native American women. "This fellowship is a real plum," says Harding, whose extensive grant experience helped Gonzales navigate the procedural maze that defines the grant-writing world.

Not that Gonzales was a neophyte, not by a long stretch. In 1992, after she earned her bachelor's in political science at OSU, the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board (NPAIHB) recruited her for a position evaluating software for Indian health-care programs in 11 states, from Alaska to Maine. In those days, all she knew about her Native American roots was that her deceased father was an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. Yet at the Indian Health Board's Tribal Epidemiology Center, a sense of connectedness took hold. Her dedication to Indian health issues began to take root.

Soon she was selected to direct the Indian Health Board's diabetes program (now a national model program). Writing grants was a big part of the job. Even so, the 75-plus page dissertation proposal she wrote under Harding's oversight, with its rigorous research design in a trailblazing field, was to the seasoned grant writer what the Olympic Games are to an experienced athlete: the convergence of talent and training under the klieg lights of acute scrutiny.

That's where Harding's coaching came in, says Gonzales. "She nudged me this way and that way, redirected me a little. She pushed me along when I was feeling it was too much. She said, ‘You can do it.' And I believed her."

Refining ideas

Graduate students "tend to be very inquisitive, and their interests can jump around from area to area," Harding says. To corral and refine this prodigious but often-raw intellect, Harding asks a lot of questions about the students' professional quests. She tasks them to make a list of possible research ideas. Together, they narrow it down. She sends them out to investigate the literature. She directs them into the field to interview working professionals. "Their ideas and passions, that brilliant light, eventually morph into a realistic research proposal," Harding says. (See Anna Harding's top-ten tips for successful mentors.)

Gonzales' passion was easy to pin down. Her six years working at the Indian Health Board, in tandem with earning a master's degree in public health from OSU, not only awakened her own cultural identity, it also anchored her commitment to native health issues. From her first job evaluating data in the Indian Health Service's electronic medical record system, she went on to launch and lead a program to improve diabetes data tracking and reporting for Northwest Indians. She sees her Ph.D. as an avenue to national policy work, as well as to further research, on behalf of native communities.

Personal and influential

Gonzales may never have gotten there, she says, without her tenacious mentor. This view is widely shared. One student who now works as a state epidemiologist speaks for many when she says, "Dr. Harding has been one of the most influential individuals in my life in my journey to reaching these professional goals." Other careers to which Harding has launched her protégés include environmental health technical adviser for USAID Global Health Bureau, pesticide and surveillance manager for the Washington Department of Health, health program manager for the Oregon Center for Environmental Health, respiratory disease epidemiologist for the Florida Department of Health, health educator and researcher at South Carolina State University, and professor of health science and human ecology at Cal State University, San Bernardino.

Basically, there isn't much Harding wouldn't do to ensure her students' success. In the days before cut-and-paste software, Harding even got out a pair of scissors and a roll of Scotch tape and rearranged a student's thesis proposal the old-fashioned way. "The stuff was all there; it was just all in the wrong place," she says, her laugh the aural embodiment of delight.

It's that deep degree of dedication that makes Harding a stellar mentor.

"I trust her because she's accountable," Gonzales says. "If she says she's going to review something, she does it immediately. And whenever I call, she's available. She has time for me. She respects me both as a student and as a professional whose goals are as important to her as they are to me."