Scott Cushing, assistant professor of chemistry at Caltech, has been named the inaugural recipient of the Shirley M. Malcom Prize for Excellence in Mentoring. The prize, first established in 2021, was created to recognize and celebrate the important role mentors serve during the education, training, and advancement of promising students and scientists.
Cushing was unanimously recommended to become the inaugural recipient of the prize by the selection committee in recognition of "the breadth, diversity, and impact of his mentoring efforts, which spanned mental health, LGBTQIA+ support, grad student culture, work-life balance, and outreach beyond campus."
One nominator called Cushing "one of the most authentic, empowering, and action-oriented leaders on the Caltech campus," and added that "Scott makes his office and his team a space where students are truly safe."
Cushing's efforts to support mental health in the research community led to his creating, in late 2019, the ChemMinds monthly lunch gathering and email list, which are aimed at fostering a safe environment for discussing mental health and its implications for graduate work and life. One participant said Cushing's, "dedication to improving our shared culture of stress and pressure makes me optimistic about the future of our chemistry community."
Cushing's commitment to diversity and mentorship were evident upon his arrival at Caltech in 2018, at which time he required all members of his lab group to become Safe Zone certified. Caltech Safe Zone is an allyship training program facilitated by the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity that offers community members the opportunity to create an affirming and engaging campus climate by identifying and educating members on campus who visibly support the LGBTQIA+ community. As one of the nominators put it, Cushing believes this certification is "just as important as the other physical safety requirements that traditional lab work requires."
Cushing has also started a Friday night social for graduate students and a one-on-one mentoring program in which Caltech graduate students mentor students at Charles Drew University, a historically Black graduate institution in Los Angeles, as well as at Compton College and Pasadena City College.
Nominators also noted that Cushing has an open-door policy for his office hours that "has spread like wildfire across the department" and has led to his students "bringing their friends from outside of the department to discuss candidly their experiences and seek counsel."
"I am so incredibly honored to receive this award," Cushing said. "I especially want to thank all of the graduate students who helped initiate and carry out these programs. Most of them came from the minds of graduate students, and I just used my professor's privilege to make them a reality. Caltech's improving climate is driven by student-led change, and I think it is an incredible transformation for academia."
The Malcom Prize committee—comprising Caltech professor and chair Niles Pierce, professor Michael Alvarez, postdoctoral scholar John Bostick, professor Michael Brown, undergraduate student Abigail Jiang, graduate student Gracie Zhang, and vice provost Michelle Effros, an ex officio member—summarized their citation by noting that Cushing "embodies the spirit of the Malcom Mentoring Prize" and that therefore the committee "wholeheartedly endorses Scott Cushing as its inaugural recipient."