Remembering Jeff Elman

This week, I lost a dear mentor, friend, and role model, with the sudden passing of my PhD adviser, Jeff Elman. I wanted to share some of the lessons I learned from this great man, and honor him for all that he contributed to my life, his community, and the world.

Dear Jeff,

My heart breaks, because the world still had so much to learn from you. But just as in the recurrent neural networks you invented, we’ll make sure to take everything you taught us and feed it back in, again and again, changing hearts and minds, cascading and echoing across time and through history. As we glide through the state space of our lives, you forever tweaked the weights to guide us towards an ever-better world. You wove a tapestry of minds that strive towards a common goal: a more vibrant world, a more just world, a world where everyone can flourish and learn. This will be your legacy: the hearts you touched, the minds you changed, the seeds you planted.

When I moved to San Diego to work with you, I knew nothing about you beyond your work, and didn’t know what to expect. At first, I was a bit intimidated by all that you had accomplished, and everything that you knew, but that feeling quickly dissolved as it became clear how dedicated you were to your role as mentor. You taught me to start small, but to take risks, and think big. To explore, but to be systematic in my exploration. To be humble, but to accept honors with grace. To think about problems holistically, and disregard the rules, as the mind isn’t based on rules anyway.

Above all, though, I learned from you what true mentorship looks like. You were there when I needed you — and when I didn’t, you stepped out of the way. You let me try things and fail, because you knew that the wisdom of having walked to a dead-end is far greater than having been told not to try. You had my back when others tried to push me off course. You taught me that life can’t all be work, but that work can be joyful too. You tended to me like a garden, or like a neural network being trained: making sure the conditions were right, and that I had what I needed, then letting me learn and grow on my own. You put far more faith in me than I deserved, and as a result I strove to live up to the challenge.

You helped me to start the nonprofit organization that has become my life’s work. And while I was your grad student, no less! While some might have called it a distraction, you believed in me, and believed in the importance of the cause. Somehow, you managed to guide — and wait — while I balanced this impossible double life, and then made damn sure I stuck with it and finished my degree before it was too late. Every day, as I continue to push this mission forward and work with an incredible group of people, I do my very best to apply the many lessons I learned from you, and live up to the example you set.

So long, and thanks for all the avuncular advice! I miss you, and I hope you know how much you meant to me. And in this, I know I’m not alone.