How to Be a Good Mentor

In the juggling act that is your work, a new student in the lab might make you feel that you have one more thing to keep aloft. Nonetheless, a mentor's job is to transform that student into a juggler, too. That student must first help keep your hoops airborne and eventually juggle as a standalone act.Your main responsibility is providing opportunities to conduct research.

By | August 2, 2004


In the juggling act that is your work, a new student in the lab might make you feel that you have one more thing to keep aloft. Nonetheless, a mentor's job is to transform that student into a juggler, too. That student must first help keep your hoops airborne and eventually juggle as a standalone act.

Your main responsibility is providing opportunities to conduct research. That involves providing a hypothesis or two, bench space and equipment time, training in techniques, office space and a lab coat, and analytic software and a computer. You also provide guidance on the processes involved, from experimental design to scientific communication, and that includes one-on-one appointments, weekly or monthly lab meetings, appraising data or raising up beers after work, event-specific gatherings, and rehearsing a presentation or editing a manuscript.

You are also a role model. When trainees watch in disbelief as you perform a difficult juggling maneuver – say, a seven-ring crossover pattern culminating in catching each ring around your neck – you break it down into a less complex process, maybe two beanbags and one simple pattern. You give your trainees the space to practice and make mistakes. Periodically, you check in on their progress, listening to frustrations and sharing successes. You nudge them further, adding a second pattern or a third beanbag. You also let them see you fumble the eighth ring yourself, and gamely try again.

These are the mechanics of mentorship. To find the crucial steps, three award-winning mentors provide some advice: John Janovy, Varner professor of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, who was honored by the American Society of Parasitologists; Ellen Vitetta, professor at the University of Texas Southwestern and recipient of the American Association of Immunologists Distinguished Mentoring Award; and R. Clinton Webb, the Greenblatt Professor of endocrinology at the Medical College of Georgia and recipient of the inaugural Bodil M. Schmidt-Nielsen Distinguished Mentor and Scientist Award from the American Physiology Society. Their collective wisdom boils down to three interrelated themes:

1. Value the person and his or her goals. "Human resources are much more important than money and technology," says Janovy.

2. Spend the time and energy. "To keep my students on the straight and narrow, have them feel enthusiastic, and develop their self-confidence requires an enormous amount of effort on my part," says Vitetta.

3. Realize it's your job. "You have a responsibility to pass science on," says Webb.

Difficult Relationships

It's easy to be a good mentor when you have motivated students, but if someone does not measure up, that can cause trouble. In such cases, Webb advises, "Ask him where he wants to be in five years." By focusing on the goal, rather than any personal flaws, you help the trainee take some responsibility in the training "I don't think you should tell the person they're not measuring up, and you're going to fire them," says Webb. "If it's not working for that individual, then they've got to move somewhere to get their career going."

When faced with a difficult student, Janovy asks himself whether that person has a strong reason for being in training and could contribute to society in a science career. "If you see real value in that individual," he says, "you're going to find a way to deal with very strong personality issues."

Trainee Comments

When Stephanie Watts, now an associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, was interviewing for postdoctoral positions, she mentioned that she would possibly have a baby. While some potential mentors hemmed and hawed, Webb said that he would bring a baby gift. "For me, it was game over!" says Watts, regarding her decision on where to train. She says that Webb keep his word about a gift, and gave her the freedom to find the balance in her life. Webb trusted Watts to find the drive and commitment to keep going.

Virginia Sanders, now an associate professor in the department of molecular virology, immunology, and medical genetics at Ohio State University, trained as a postdoc under Vitetta. Upon telling Vitetta about an exciting finding, her mentor responded: "Prove it to me." Sanders asked her to come look for herself, but Vitetta calmly repeated her demand. Utterly perplexed, Sanders stewed for the rest of the day. "All of a sudden the light went on," she says. "That was a turning point in my development. I saw that being a scientist was not just making observations. It was taking those observations and giving them a scientific basis." Sanders credits her mentor for her patience, "the patience to not tell me the answer," and for allowing her to grow. "I really felt she truly wanted me to become a good scientist," Sanders concludes.

Tim Ruhnke, now an assistant professor of biology at West Virginia State College, was a student in Janovy's lab. He says that Janovy never spoke down to students. "He spoke in a way that developed you. He expected you to think big thoughts," says Ruhnke.

Beyond Science

In true apprenticeship fashion, you ultimately show your student what your life in science is all about. Vitetta comments that science has morphed into a more different career than it was 20 years ago. Scientists now have to be versed in compliance and regulatory issues, interact with industry, understand the legalese of patents and material transfer, and use technologies "that get you more data than you can analyze," she says. In addition to science, Vitetta teaches students "how to deal with the entire system that science is now buried in."

Moreover, exposure to departmental politics and study-section diplomacy is a part of training. "We talk about it all the time," says Janovy, echoing his approach to scientific topics. There's a general rule that anything can be said within the graduate students' room, but it "doesn't get out the door," he says. "A lot of that is gossip, but on the other hand, it's pretty informative gossip."

Jill U. Adams

Article Extras


American Physiological Society Career Mentoring Program

Advisor, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering

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