7 qualities to look for in a scientific mentor
By Barry Teater
Steven Munger observed two types of principal investigators (PIs) during his graduate and post-doctoral science training, and their differences are stark.
“The first group treats trainees as their minions, as research technicians whose only goals are to support the PI’s research and secure him or her funding,” says Munger, Ph.D., a newly minted assistant professor at The Jackson Laboratory (JAX). “The second cohort of PI’s understand that if they provide a quality mentoring experience, that graduate student or post-doc may go on to far greater success than the PI themselves. Importantly, they hope for this outcome.”
Munger has seen graduate students choose mentors from both camps and live with the long-term consequences. “Ten years later it is clear to me that the trainees who chose labs with respectful mentors have been more successful,” he says.
If it’s true that few decisions are more fateful to a rising young scientist’s career than the choice of a mentor, then which behaviors and traits should graduate students and postdocs look for when selecting their gurus?
Some postdoctoral associates and scientific faculty at JAX offer some guidance based on their own experiences.
“A good scientific mentor respects their trainees and treats them from the outset as a future peer rather than a cheap pair of hands,” says Munger. “When you’re a young, naive trainee starting out in a lab, being respected by your mentor gives you the motivation to work long hours for low pay and the confidence to take risks and make breakthroughs.”
Munger considers himself fortunate for having worked with two exceptional mentors who honored his capabilities: Dr. Blanche Capel, his Ph.D. adviser while studying genetics at Duke University, and Gary Churchill, Ph.D., his post-doc mentor at JAX.
“With Blanche’s support and guidance, I started a new area of research in her lab. Blanche gave me the freedom to take ownership of this project from the beginning, and importantly, involved me in the grant-writing process – this proved to be an extremely valuable experience.
“Gary took a substantial risk by taking me on as a post-doctoral fellow. I had high interest in “big data,” integrative genomics, and systems genetics – Gary is a leader in these areas – but I had no previous computational training. On my first day at JAX Gary put me in charge of a large analysis project, and then gave me the time and support (much of which came from his other post-docs) to learn the computational skills and apply them to my project. He also gave me a pilot budget to establish my own experiments on the side – these side experiments form the research foundations for my own lab at JAX.”
“One of the goals of postdoc training is to learn to become an independent scientist doing good science,” says Narayanan Raghupathy, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate in the Churchill lab. “Academic freedom to pursue interesting scientific questions allows this to happen, so a trainee can make fewer mistakes early on, learn from it and from the mentor.
“The academic freedom I got in Gary's group has enabled me to initiate interesting collaborations with other research groups in the lab. This is the type of work-environment I would love to recreate.”
Postdoctoral Fellow Jeremy Racine, Ph.D., says, “A good mentor has to have the proper balance of providing space for independence while being available for guidance and support” – a behavior he’s seen from his mentor, JAX’s David Serreze, Ph.D.
“He regularly comes into lab to bounce ideas around, but it never feels like he is breathing down everyone’s neck,” Racine says. “He has many responsibilities outside of the lab but never feels like he is too busy to be reached. This fosters an incredibly enjoyable intellectual and training environment.”
Laura Reinholdt, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at JAX, recalls her graduate mentor at Cornell University, John Schimenti, Ph.D., being exceptionally flexible and not expecting a clone of himself.
“He didn’t demand that I do things his way,” she says. “He had the patience to let me find out for myself. But at the same time, he didn’t abandon me to ‘hang’ myself with that long rope.”
Established scientists spend years fostering contacts and collaborations, so “entering that larger world, and establishing relationships with established scientists can often be a daunting experience,” says Racine. “A good mentor will help make contacts and help facilitate collaborations.”
And because science doesn’t happen in isolation, “the lab environment should foster free exchange of ideas . . . and enable science by serendipity,” adds Raghupathy. “A collaborative environment is important, especially when the biology is becoming highly interdisciplinary. Typically one needs to learn other skills or seek collaborations to make progress. The lab environment should be such that you "work with the PI and the lab" rather than "work for the PI."
Munger is grateful for Churchill’s pushing him beyond the JAX community. “Gary encouraged me to share my research with the greater scientific community, and sent me to national and international scientific conferences. These opportunities enabled me to increase my visibility in my field and establish my own network of scientific collaborators.”
Graduate and postdoctoral training is typically heavy on science, often to the detriment of other essential functions of running an independent lab or pursuing other science-related careers. Then, when a trainee becomes independent, “suddenly there are grants to write or review, committees to serve on, classes to teach and new trainees to mentor,” says Racine.
“Very little training is dedicated to these non-benchwork requirements of a scientist or to balancing the science with other responsibilities outside of the bench. A good mentor will introduce a mentee to these aspects of being an independent investigator.”
(Recognizing this need, JAX sponsors a curriculum for predocs and postdocs called the Whole Scientist Program, which teaches subjects not typically offered in science-degree tracks such as science communication, management, teaching and mentoring, entrepreneurship, grant budgeting and ethics. The program prepares participants to either run their own labs or take other leadership positions in science.)
“In the current funding scenarios, where only a small percentage of postdocs can go on to establish their own labs, engaging in activities like teaching, mentoring and meeting other scientists at conferences exposes other careers as a possibility,” says Raghupathy.
Racine credits his mentor, Serreze, for exposing him to training beyond the lab bench. “Dave has supported my attendance to seminars outside of the lab (such as the Whole Scientist Program), and allowed me time to give presentations to lay audiences. He has included me in mentoring duties for a graduate student. He has also included me on grant writing and review outside of my own direct funding applications
“When other responsibilities preclude his inclusion in some meeting, Dave has had me step in for him and represent him. This is often a missing aspect of postdoctoral training, and I appreciate being exposed to this side of being an independent investigator now rather when I am on my own.”
For Jethro Johnson, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate in George Weinstock’s lab at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine campus in Farmington, Conn., “Good science must come front and center” with a mentor.
“As a postdoc, what stands between me and an independent research position is the ability to secure funding,” Johnson says. “In addition to working for a good scientist, I want to work for someone who is recognized as a good scientist and has a demonstrated track record of funding. I know that reputation is important and that big names stand out when people are skimming a CV.
“I’m wary of people who would be willing to supervise too far beyond their own experience, as they are unlikely to provide informed guidance. I am wary of senior scientists who have become managers – those who have lost touch with detail of the work done by their postdocs – for the same reason,” Johnson adds.
“What I really search for is the trust that my investment will be reciprocated. For this reason, I would be wary of poorly funded mentors, selfish personalities, or those who are not entirely independent themselves. These people may not give me reward for my work because the result is too valuable to them. Conversely, late-career researchers are particularly appealing, as they are less concerned with securing their own future, and are more interested in legacy (i.e., their post-docs).”
Reinholdt, senior scientist, considers herself fortunate that her two mentors – Schimenti and JAX’s Mary Ann Handel, Ph.D. – respected the uniqueness of each postdoc. “John’s lab had a fairly large number of post-docs with very different personalities,” she says. “His general attitude was that his role was to provide the resources for success, but that success was really up to the postdoc. John was never in the business of training clones of himself – and he was supportive of his postdocs’ decisions to pursue other career tracks: teaching, industry, law, etc. Mary Ann was also a proponent of not training clones of herself.”
Agrees Racine: “No two trainees are going to respond the same way to a training style. Often mentors employ one base style for all interactions and don’t make accommodations for a trainee who doesn’t respond well to a particular style. A good mentor will look at the strengths and weaknesses of the trainee and adapt to give the necessary support for those strengths and weaknesses.”
Reinholdt notes that her two mentors, Schimenti and Handel, also exuded passion and enthusiasm for their work, which inevitably bubbled over into their pool of postdocs.
“I think this honest and genuine love and excitement for science shouldn’t be under-estimated,” she says. “It draws and inspires trainees.”