Leading by Example

The first in her family to go to college, Jocelyn Nadeau entered Smith College intending to major in psychology.

Lan Nguyen
Nov 6, 2005

The first in her family to go to college, Jocelyn Nadeau entered Smith College intending to major in psychology. But Stuart Rosenfeld, a professor of chemistry, changed all that when, in her sophomore year, he took her under his wing and gave her the opportunity to conduct research.

Not only did she get "a realistic picture of research," says the Charlestown, NH, native, but she was also encouraged to think about graduate school. Ten years later, Nadeau, now 30, has joined Marist College as an assistant professor of chemistry after completing a PhD at Brown University and postdoc work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"I got a sense of what [Rosenfeld] did, and I could see myself in his shoes," Nadeau says about her decision to work at a small college. "He led by example."

For Marcus Fairly, who earned a master's degree in bioscience, the decision regarding the...


Whether you are a fledgling scientist or someone who's been in the business for a while, you can benefit from having someone in your corner. "Even as late as in my mid-40s, I have found people I looked up to and can learn from," says Marist College's School of Science dean, Mike Tannenbaum, who himself has mentored many students in his 14-year career as a professor of biology.

Here are some strategies for finding the right mentor for right now.

Know your goals and what you want from the relationship; this will help you decide what kind of mentor you need. Janice Chin of Pfizer wanted help with her strategic thinking, but she also wanted someone who shared her experience of being a mom and a female scientist.

Consider having more than one mentor, says Steven Anderson, associate director of Northwestern University's Integrated Graduate Program and assistant professor of microbiology and immunology, as finding a mentor that fits all your requirements may be impossible.

Pick someone you're comfortable with. A mentor with a lofty title may be attractive, but remember, you'll be sharing intimate details about yourself. Pfizer's Christine Parker interviewed three women before she settled on one as a mentor.

Select someone who will make time for you and whose advice you trust. Choosing a mentor is important to your career.

Take the first step in establishing rapport. Sign up for office hours. Suggest going out for drinks or lunch. Break the ice by asking about his or her experiences. "One of the things mentees must understand is that people like helping other people, and they like talking about their own experiences," says Marcus Fairly, who landed a position at Amgen thanks to his mentor. "Knowing that, you shouldn't be shy about who you think could be a potential mentor."

Some educational institutions have discovered that mentoring can attract and retain young scientists, especially women and minority researchers. Northwestern University, for example, stepped up its efforts to recruit and mentor minority and female engineers and life scientists after receiving a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2004. The grant is part of an effort to triple the number of minority academics in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math.

The grant allowed the university to create the Science and Engineering Committee on Multicultural Affairs, with five subcommittees focusing on retention, school visits, summer programs, marketing, and finance, says Penny Warren, assistant dean of Minority Affairs.

The funds also gave the university the means to appoint 26 faculty members as Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) professors and 12 minority senior graduate students as AGEP scholars. AGEP professors work on graduating minority PhDs, while AGEP scholars such as Jennifer Hobbes, a fifth-year PhD student in cancer biology, receive small stipends to mentor younger students and help the school recruit minority students. "Every year I've been here, the number of minority students has increased," says Hobbes, who is African American. "I would like to keep that trend going."

People in Industry also understand the importance of mentoring. Pfizer's mentoring program, Catalyst, is available to all research and development workers around the world. Pfizer also sponsors informal groups such as the Women's Leadership Network (WLN) at the company's Groton, Conn., worksite. Financially supported by the company, the WLN holds monthly networking lunches, organizes workshops, and mentors female students at local educational institutions.

"We have a variety of mentoring programs, because the belief is that mentoring is important for sustained career success," says Karen Houseknecht, WLN head and an associate research fellow in the discovery group. "The basic sciences are predominantly male," she adds. "It helps to have mentors and a community as [women] try to figure out how to balance work and family or other outside activities."

GlaxoSmithKline also just started matching young scientists in R&D with mentors via a computer program. But even before then, management teams would meet once a year to evaluate employees and identify those who needed mentoring. "Within that process, we specifically ask managers to bring with them profiles of promising women and minorities," says Nancy Marsh, senior vice president of human resources.

"One of the side benefits of mentoring is relationship development," continues Marsh. "We do so much teamwork and are geographically distributed that it helps make connections between people. The second important aspect is scientific diversity. One of the wonderful things about being global and a mix of cultures and countries and training perspectives is being able to mix different points of view. ... It takes a village to make a product."


The National Institutes of Health also sees the need for mentoring. "I was surprised by the number of applications that were received from people with outstanding pedigrees but were way below what it took to achieve a fundable score," says John Schwab, program director for the division of pharmacology, physiology, and biological chemistry at NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences. "It was a huge number of avoidable errors that were being committed – everything from weak choices of research projects to the inability to effectively sell an idea, or out-and-out sloppiness in proposal presentation. I talked to a number of people in the field. As a result of these discussions, I came up with a hypothesis: Mentoring is uneven in this community."

Schwab adds, "We're talking long-term survival skills like selling a project and specifically grantmanship or management of a research group or teaching professional ethics – things that are important but do not directly contribute to PhD students achieving results and getting papers published for his or her boss."

To fix the problems, Schwab and Mike Doyle of the University of Maryland organized a workshop, inviting 28 recommended junior organic chemistry and chemical biology faculty to attend the two-day-long event in May to network with seven senior professors and get feedback from these mentors on their presentations. The workshop proved to be such a success that the NIH has funded it for another four years.

Finding a mentor can be as easy as striking up a conversation. John Anderson, the William H. Drury chair in evolution, ecology, and natural history at the Maine's College of the Atlantic met his mentor, UC-Berkeley professor Ned Johnson, by asking him questions after class.

Or the process could be as formal as being assigned a mentor. While a microbiology student at Pennsylvania's Kutztown University, Jason Skipworth was paired with Maureen Murphy when he accepted a summer internship at Philadelphia's Fox Chase Cancer Center. Skipworth is now working with viruses in another Fox Chase Cancer Center lab while studying for his GRE. The 27-year-old plans to pursue a PhD in viral pathology, cancer biology, or immunology.

Working in Murphy's cell developmental biology lab "was priceless," says Skipworth. "I went to a small school so I didn't get to see what real science was like. I learned that everything didn't work, how to work long hours, the things you need to prepare for, [and] how you can tweak things. She showed me that I could do this."

How to be a mentor

Having a cheerleader on your side can be extremely helpful, and being the person doing the cheering has its benefits, too. "You learn so much from them as well," says Nishanta Rajakaruna, mentor and professor at College of the Atlantic. "It is one way you can keep your interest alive and remain excited about a variety of things."

Here are some tips on being an effective mentor:

Be patient, advises Elisa Woodridge, assistant professor of chemistry at Marist College. Oftentimes researchers who enter your lab will require training, but, "it can be such a joy to see them take off," she says.

Be supportive, recommends Fox Chase Cancer Center's Maureen Murphy. She "believed in" Jason Skipworth despite the need "to train him to do molecular biology" because he had little opportunity to do real research at his small college. It paid off; he landed a job at Fox Chase after graduating from Kutztown University.

Help your mentee aim for the stars. Jamaine Saydu Davis wouldn't have been one of this year's BIO Minority and Indigenous Fellows if Jacqueline Tanaka hadn't pushed him to pursue a PhD when the Drexel University graduate worked at her lab. "She has high expectations for everyone, which is great," says Davis, who is in the fifth year of the University of Pennsylvania's PhD program. "It helps you try and reach for the best."

Develop a relationship in which trust and honesty exist. Your mentee will be sharing tales of obstacles as well as goals; you will discuss your experiences and strategies for coping. When Karen Houseknecht moved from academia to Pfizer, she struggled to navigate the political waters. Her mentor's knowledge of power and politics "allowed me to work in a corporate culture," she recalls. "That translated into improved performance next year."

When giving advice, keep your mentee's best interests in mind, even though sometimes they may clash with your own. After all, "it is not often in your self-interest to bring along someone who will in essence replace you," notes Steven Anderson, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at Northwestern University. Still, keep in mind that you're training colleagues who are looking for guidance and support.

Once mentees have an idea of where they would like to go, help them get there. Mentor-mentee relationships are based on the hope that you will help them make the connections needed to move to the next phase in their careers.