When Rachel Dzombak’s PhD advisor, beloved engineering Professor David Dornfeld, died unexpectedly in 2016, she was not sure what would happen next.
“That morning was a nightmare,” said Dzombak, now a postdoctoral researcher at Haas and at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. “I came back to the lab after receiving a text from a peer to see Sara sitting on the couch, comforting students.”
“Sara” is Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman, who co-taught a course with Dornfeld, the founding faculty director of the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation. After his passing, Beckman served as Dzombak’s advisor until she graduated with a PhD in civil and environmental engineering in August 2017. Dzombak credits Beckman with not only comforting her through her grief, but helping her unite the disparate parts of her research.
“She digs into the details,” Dzombak said. “She provides constructive ideas and, if she doesn’t know how to navigate a problem, she’ll connect you with three people who might. She never settles.”
That experience led Dzombak to nominate Beckman for the 2018 Carol D. Soc Distinguished Graduate Student Mentoring Award for senior faculty. Beckman, who teaches innovation and design at both Haas and UC Berkeley’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, will receive the campus-wide award at a ceremony April 12.
Fiona M. Doyle, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the graduate division of the Donald H. McLaughlin Professor of Mineral Engineering, said Beckman’s nomination stood out from the pool of numerous nominees.
Solving complicated problems
Beckman, who joined Haas in 1988 and is the Earl F. Cheit Faculty Fellow, is perhaps best known among MBA students for Problem Finding, Problem Solving, a pioneering course that has been part of the core curriculum since 2010 to teach students how to recognize and solve complicated problems using design-thinking, systems-thinking, and critical-thinking techniques. Students often cite the course as making the difference for them in competition wins and consulting projects.
Beckman also teaches Applied Innovation Immersion Week, Advanced Innovation, Creativity & Leadership, and Collaborative Innovation.
Much of Beckman’s work has included years of hands-on research-based mentoring and coaching of PhD students, getting into the thick of highly interdisciplinary work. Beckman said she’s thrilled to receive the award.
“I know that the way that I’ve crafted my research work at the university, reaching across disciplinary boundaries to work on interesting problems in the design and innovation space, is a bit outside of the norm,” she said. “It’s gratifying for me and for many of the PhD students I’ve worked with over the years to know that kind of work can be honored.”
Many people wanted to contribute to her nomination and tell stories of how Beckman played a definitive role in their Berkeley experience. Dzombak, the lead nominator, spoke with current and former students, as well as faculty, from Haas, the College of Engineering, the College of Environmental Design, the College of Letters and Sciences, and the College of Natural Resources, for Beckman’s recommendation.
“The message told to me was consistent: Sara changes students’ lives,” Dzombak wrote.
“Sara electrifies students with possibilities”
Haas lecturers Marymoore Patterson, MBA 09, and Barbara Waugh, an executive in residence at both Haas and the College of Engineering, praised Beckman’s commitment to interdisciplinary teaching. Working across departments, as Beckman has done over the years, has posed challenges. But gradually Beckman’s choices made her a “hero to students and faculty who want to partner across the boundaries,” they wrote in their nomination letter.
“Sara electrifies her students with possibility,” they wrote. “She fearlessly tackles wicked problems, constantly modeling how. She begins each day herself with the ‘beginner’s mind’ that she aims to instill in her students.”
Engineering Prof. Alice Agogino called Beckman “a mentoring artist” who steers students with “insightful framings of their research.”
Doctoral students mentored by Beckman include Assoc. Prof. Eric Masanet of Northwestern University, PhD 04, whom Beckman helped evaluate data from case studies in sustainable design; Corie Cobb, PhD 08, now an associate professor at the University of Washington, whom Beckman assisted with a number of papers dedicated to understanding the impact of her course in New Product Development; and Kimberly Lau, who researched the role that diversity plays in effective product development team performance.
Lau, who also wrote a nomination letter for Beckman, recalls how she pulled her back into the PhD program, even after she quit to take her dream job at Disney. “Dr. Beckman refused to give up on me,” she said. “She continually encouraged me to finish and she always made time whenever I had questions… She persisted with me for three years beyond my expected completion date, with no hesitations, and I finally graduated.”
Dzombak and Beckman continue to work together today, conducting research on the future of higher education and the innovation processes of Nobel Laureates. Together, they launched a one-unit course for graduate students called Designing a Life. The goal is to help other students navigate career and personal challenges.
Beckman’s award, which includes a $2,500 prize, will be presented at a ceremony on Thursday, April 12, from 4-6 pm, at Anna Head Alumnae Hall. Not surprisingly, she says she will apply the award toward supporting her graduate students.