Marinov's Undergraduate Research Mentorship Award Indicative of a Thoughtful, Inclusive Approach

5/3/2022 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Illinois CS professor Darko Marinov earned the CRA-E Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentoring Award, which cited his collaborative spirit and student-centered mentality.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

As a professor with Illinois Computer Science since 2005, Darko Marinov has built up a firm knowledge base of the research process in software engineering, and, beyond that, how to cultivate interest in the research process within undergraduate students.

Darko Marinov
Darko Marinov

In February, his efforts as a research mentor to undergraduate students were acknowledged by the CRA-E when he earned its Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentoring Award.

While humbled and honored by the distinction, Marinov also credited his colleagues – specifically, Sasa Misailovic, Reyhaneh Jabbarvand, and Lingming Zhang – for taking the time to nominate him.

Ultimately, he felt inspired by the recognition as an acknowledgement of his approach to mentorship of undergraduate students.

“The first thing I typically try to do is help them decide what they want to do next,” Marinov said. “Undergraduate students are at a stage in life where they're just exploring, and probably the biggest option they have in front of them is whether they should join industry or go to graduate school.

“My first goal is to help them reach a decision on that. The second goal is to help them prepare in case they want to go into research.”

This thoughtful approach is something Marinov has crafted over time, and even in defiance of some of the analytics that might go into acknowledgments about a faculty members effectiveness in this realm.

Further Perspective from Marinov's Fellow Professors in Software Engineering

Reyhaneh Jabbarvand
Reyhaneh Jabbarvand

“Simple and concise, Darko cares about his students and peers. He's the kind of mentor that listens to you without judging and his words are always encouraging. I am grateful to have him as my mentor. Students benefit from his engagement in undergraduate research through a lifetime enjoyment of research and curiosity, even if they do not end up in academia.”


Lingming Zhang
Lingming Zhang

“One of the most important things is that Darko really cares about the students and always tries to help the students improve themselves. Darko also really enjoys mentoring students and spends a tremendous amount of time with the students. This means a lot, because effective mentorship can help an undergraduate student become better prepared for research projects, stimulate their interests in research, give them confidence, and, more importantly, set the standard for them.”

Too often, he said, people in higher education pride themselves and others who help undergraduates by analyzing most closely how many students go on to graduate school and earn their PhD.

“I consider that to be a bit of a tricky metric, looking simply at the percentage of undergraduate students we have that go on to graduate school,” Marinov said. “The implication is that you should immediately focus on pushing them to attend graduate school. I consider that a very personal decision, and, as a mentor, I look at it through a much more subjective relationship.

“Did I help the student make the right decision for them? Did I provide them the information they need to help them decide on their future in the best possible way?”

Of the colleagues that supported Marinov by nominating him for this award, one even knows first-hand how impactful his approach to undergraduate mentorship is.

Misailovic, a fellow Illinois CS professor, began his path to a current position in academia as an undergraduate student in CS at the University of Belgrade. During that time, he came to Illinois CS as a visiting scholar, where he worked with Marinov.

The experience helped him confirm interest in CS research as he went on to earn a master's degree in Computer Engineering and Science from the same university and a PhD in CS from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Sasa Misailovic
Sasa Misailovic

"Working with Darko as an undergrad was a real privilege and an eye-opening experience that motivated me to continue my path in academia. Where else can one have this much fun while exploring new ideas and building new systems?” Misailovic said. “Now as a faculty, I try to apply the lessons I have learned from Darko and create a similar environment for my students."

These types of successful interactions are indicative of something bigger, according to Marinov. Oddly enough, the co-winner of this CRA-E award, University of California Berkeley professor Jelani Nelson, was also an undergraduate student of Marinov’s at one point in time.

After learning about this coincidence, the two reconnected – thus, providing another opportunity for the professor to gauge why undergraduate research mentoring is important and rewarding.

“It’s not just about me, it’s about everyone in our software engineering research area,” Marinov said. “There is a prevailing sense of camaraderie and collaboration that impacts the way we work with others. That’s not the case everywhere, and it makes me proud to be a part of this group. We strive to put others’ needs first and do our best to help them progress the way they see fit.”

And there are a few different ways that they attempt to accomplish this, Marinov pointed out.

Another benefit to software engineering as a research area is its accessibility.

Unlike other areas that demand a high degree of expertise for active participation in their research, software engineering serves as a great gateway for undergraduate students to learn about research. Their still relatively new computing skillsets can contribute to the actual research being conducted; they don’t have to be an onlooker only.

Fittingly, Marinov and this group have held outreach efforts, as they did a summer ago with a virtual program for undergraduate research conducted by all four members of the area previously mentioned – as well as Tianyin Xu, whose research bridges both software engineering and systems.

“We opened that summer program up to anyone, as virtual participation allowed us to meet that need at scale,” Marinov said. “Still, we expected about 20 applications, and we received over 200. It was great for our group to get more exposure about our research efforts, and we will be doing that again this summer.”

Marinov also mentioned that he worked with a high school student for the first time past summer.

While pleased with the CRA-E award, the best part of the process to Marinov is simply being there for others during an important stage of life.

But for as much as he’s benefited others, Marinov also takes quite a bit from the process.

“What undergraduate students at Illinois bring is enthusiasm,” he said. “They are open to new ideas, even when we give them hard problems. Many don't even know how hard these questions are, and they can sometimes surprise you by finding interesting solutions. They are young, full of energy, and they want to explore. They're not afraid to try new things, even if it does not work at first.”

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This story was published May 3, 2022.