Nada Moumtaz and Sophie Rousseaux recognized with Early Career Supervision Award

Assistant Professors Nada Moumtaz (Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations and Department for the Study of Religion) and Sophie Rousseaux (Department of Chemistry) have received the Early Career Supervision Award from the School of Graduate Studies.

The annual award, which was launched in 2021, recognizes pre-tenure faculty who, over a period of up to six years, have demonstrated excellence in graduate supervision. Two awards are given out annually, one in the Physical/Life Sciences, and one in the Humanities/Social Sciences. Each winner will receive a certificate of recognition from SGS and an SGS Travel Grant for one of their students. 

Prof. Nada Moumtaz (L) & Prof. Sophie Rousseaux (R)

Prof. Nada Moumtaz, Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations and Department for the Study of Religion

Nada Moumtaz describes her approach to graduate supervision as “tailored” and “flexible.”

 “The key, I think is, empathy and respect,” she explains, noting that many of her students have family responsibilities, and therefore, competing demands on their time. “Both for them as individuals who have full lives and know what they’re doing, but also as people who might be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of academia. I try to take into account where they’re coming from, and what they know and don’t know, and what kind of support they need.”

Moumtaz came to the University of Toronto in 2016 from Ohio State University, where she had been teaching after earning a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the City University of New York in 2012. Her research, which stands at the intersection of anthropology, history, and Islamic legal studies, spans the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries in the Levant and examines various aspects of the interaction between religion and capitalism. In particular, Moumtaz is interested in the renewal of the centuries-old Islamic practice of pious endowments (or waqf) in Lebanon, and its transformation through new understandings of religion and the economy.

But Moumtaz did not always consider herself an anthropologist. Arriving in New York with an undergraduate degree in architecture from the American University of Beirut, she found herself reeling while trying to navigate the literature of a new discipline.

“I was clueless,” she remembers. “I didn’t know how to read for graduate school. And some teachers didn’t give us a lot of context for the debates with which we were engaging. When they did, I didn’t have enough of a background for the information to stick. Others assumed we were doing a lot of reading outside class.”

Now, in her own supervision, Moumtaz tries to be mindful of gaps in her students’ knowledge, while still encouraging them to arrive at their own conclusions.

“What I try to do for the students is place some of the texts we are reading in context,” she explains. “I offer a lot of ‘meta-talk.’ For instance, I will tell them that we’re about to tackle a long book and share different approaches to reading it. There’s a particular skill that assignment wants you to develop. So I try to explain the kind of learning different courses expect from you.”

She also believes in being honest with her feedback, thinking of her students as scholars doing important research. “I’m not going to tell them something is good if it isn’t. And I try to think with them about their projects – send them resources that will help them expand their horizons and their community.”

In addition to that careful engagement with students’ work, the Early Career Supervision Award also recognizes Moumtaz’s ongoing support for students’ efforts to make the department a more inclusive and equitable space. Students in the DSR note that she has dedicated a significant amount of time and energy to supporting their racial equity working group and to representing their concerns using her voice as a faculty member. One student observes that “when non-normative graduate students are impacted by hegemonic academic structures, Nada ensures they have her wholehearted support, and notably, shows a continued confidence in their capacities.”

For Moumtaz, who admits to having struggled with thinking of herself as a mentor, being considered for the award has meant “so much.” She is especially touched by the lengths to which her students went to support her nomination.

“It’s so heartwarming to know they wrote these letters and that they appreciate what I do,” she shares. “Because to me, I’m just doing what I do with the community of scholars I am part of. I also feel like these are my responsibilities. I’m just doing my job.”

Prof. Sophie Rousseaux, Department of Chemistry

When Dr. Sophie Rousseaux began her teaching career at U of T in 2015, she knew she wanted to adopt a student-centered approach for her research group.

“My philosophy has always been that the foundation to my research program is student success,” notes Rousseaux. “If the students are successful, then that forms a foundation for the program’s success, and for us to make important discoveries that could potentially have an impact on everyday life.”

Rousseaux, who earned her PhD from the University of Ottawa and held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford, decided she would do things differently. For instance, in a field where students have historically been expected to work long hours, Rousseaux prefers not to track how many hours her trainees are physically spending in the lab, choosing instead to help her students use their time efficiently, in whatever way works best for them. She’s also a big proponent of finding the right work-life balance, and actively encourages her students to plan their time off – even if it’s just a few days off to relax and watch Netflix.

“What I observed when I was in graduate school was that students would show up to put in a certain number of hours in the lab, but they wouldn’t necessarily be engaged with their research during these hours,” she explains. “And I realized that not everyone works the same way. Some students prefer the weekends when it’s quieter and others want to have that time for themselves. I always try to be flexible.”

In a discipline that prioritizes big questions and big funding, it’s an approach that continues to be met with some skepticism, though Rousseaux would like to change that.

“I had someone ask me recently if it was possible to run a student-centered lab in a competitive research program,” she says. “I would say it’s not only possible but also fulfilling. If you focus on building up your students, then you end up in a situation where you can ask big questions. And the students feel empowered to go after them.”

In addition to encouraging her students to pursue interests outside the lab, Rousseaux also engages them in conversations about the wider debates that are shaping the field. One example is her group’s EDI-based Journal Club, where the whole group meets regularly to read and discuss articles from the literature that addresses concerns around equity and diversity. Rousseaux says the students have picked a variety of topics ranging from mental health in graduate school to the question of whether older scientific literature, with its racist assumptions, should be jettisoned.

It’s an initiative the researcher convened during the first year of the pandemic in response to an article published by a prominent journal that decried recent efforts to make the field more diverse. “A lot of people, myself included, felt very hurt and upset that those words had been published, and in a major journal,” she recollects. “It was early in the pandemic, so students were often at home alone with their thoughts. Then they get this message that they are not welcome if they belong to any kind of underrepresented group. I thought it was very important to address that.”

Rousseaux hopes that students will take their critical thinking into their future roles as mentors and professors. “I want to demonstrate to the students that these issues are serious and important to me,” she shares. “And that it’s important for them to not just reflect on these things now, but also to think about what tools they can develop for the mentorship roles they may have.”

Knowing that her efforts have made a difference in students’ lives means the world to Rousseaux. “To know that students have felt supported just means everything to me. They have had such a profound impact on me as an educator. I just hope to be able to continue in my role and be the best mentor I can be in the years to come.”


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