Dennis Prather honored with Outstanding Graduate Advising and Doctoral Mentoring award

University of Delaware Professor Dennis Prather received the 2018 Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Advising and Mentoring Award during UD’s doctoral hooding ceremony on Friday, May 25.

The award is given annually to a faculty member whose dedication and commitment to excellence in graduate training have made “a significant contribution to the quality of life and professional development of graduate students” at UD.

Prather, Engineering Alumni Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering(ECE), is an international scholar and world leader in the development of new radiofrequency photonics technologies.

Over the last five years, Prather and his team have devoted much of their time to a first-of-its-kind radiofrequency photonic system they say is like a video camera for cell phone frequencies or an antenna that “sees.” It is a promising technology that could be a critical component of the next wave of cellular communications technology, commonly known as 5G.

To his students, Prather is known as an ideal role model and a humble individual whose “unbridled passion for research and engineering advancement” is matched only by his “unwavering dedication to bringing each graduate student up to their full potential.”

“When he was named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors in 2018, he congratulated the entire research group, saying he viewed the accomplishment as a team award,” said Dylan Ross, a graduate research assistant in Prather’s lab.

Prather holds 33 patents, more than 500 publications and has been awarded $35 million in sponsored research over his career. Since joining UD in 1997, Prather has mentored 55 master’s and doctoral students.

“Professor Prather is an incredibly dedicated adviser and mentor, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels,” said Kenneth Barner, Charles Black Evans Professor and ECE chair. “He goes above and beyond to support students and serves as a shining example of what can be achieved with dedication, hard work and a positive attitude.”

Joseph Deroba, who earned his doctoral degree in 2017, noted Prather’s tireless drive and cheerful disposition among the things he will remember most of the man he said, “helped shape me as a researcher, engineer, friend and father.”

“Failure is part of research, and it can be debilitating to a young researcher, yet, Dr. Prather has a way to rally one’s psyche with his constantly positive attitude,” said Deroba, adding that Prather views his team as an extension of his family. “He teaches loyalty, respect, integrity and personal courage all by his own example.”

The students noted Prather’s willingness to go “above and beyond” to help his students’ projects succeed. While his bank of stored knowledge is deep, they said, Prather also is adept at learning new subject matter alongside his students in order to provide insight on challenges they may be facing in their research.

When they fail, as is inevitable in research, he picks them up and encourages them to press on. Sometimes this means a quick “keep up the good work” and other times it’s a motivational speech or private talk.

“Dr. Prather has consistently referred to our research group as a family, creating a nurturing environment for progress as an entire group through the combined efforts of his students,” said Connor Ryan, an ECE graduate research assistant. “He has created a legacy of perseverance and selflessness here at UD.”

This positive reinforcement and recognition may seem like a small thing, but his students say it matters deeply and it is among the reasons that they work so hard.

“He will always celebrate successes of each graduate student, no matter how small a feat the student thinks it is,” Ross said. “I will truly miss receiving exuberant email responses to results, which primarily consist of all capitalized letters and an unnecessary amount of exclamation points.”

Added Deroba, “He is there for all of us for more than just academics and research. He is the first to congratulate you with a high five, a vigorous handshake or a hug, regardless of the milestone you have achieved in life. When my wife and I had our first child, his eyes lit up and he shook my hand and congratulated me as a new dad.”

But Prather can seem like a taskmaster, too, as he’s working to develop his students’ abilities and teaching them to run a lab, delegate workloads and mentor students of their own. Presentation and writing skills are a key part of this development so that the work they each do can reach, and appeal to, a wider audience. These skills are honed through weekly group meetings that are notorious and sometimes feel “like a qualifying exam,” according to Matthew R. Konkol, now a senior engineer with Phase Sensitive Innovations.

The task of preparing new students to attend weekly group meetings is reserved for a senior team member designated by Prather—a U.S. Navy captain—as the Bull ensign, a naval rank adopted in 1862 to designate the senior ensign of the naval command. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, among other duties, the Bull ensign is “responsible for preventing junior ensigns in his command from embarrassing themselves and the Navy.”

The year he served as Bull ensign, Konkol recalled preparing a new team member for his first group meeting with equal parts seriousness, humor and support.

“I think what I told that student summarizes well the rigorous academic community that Dr. Prather seeks to develop in his group, and of which his students are so proud,” Konkol said. “I said: ‘Make sure your fonts are consistent, your axes labelled, but most importantly make sure you never present anything you don’t understand. And if you absolutely have to, make sure you have a plan. And if you don’t have a plan, then we need to figure one out together right now.’ ”