Mentoring at NIH

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is placing new emphasis on mentoring. Researchers are now evaluated specifically on their mentoring skills when they come up for review. And the NIH's Ethics and Conduct Committee recently released a guide on mentoring--and the entire first run was snapped up, so they're printing more and distributing them widely. A Guide to Training and Mentoring in the Intramural Research Program at NIH outlines NIH's policies and recommendations about mentoring. The pamphlet, NIH's first official word on its training responsibilities, was published and circulated earlier this year, but there have been concerted efforts this fall to publicize the guide.

In his role as deputy director for intramural research at NIH, Michael Gottesman is the federal "big daddy" of mentoring. He keeps track of the activities and training of all NIH researchers--which adds up to about 6000 people working at the hospital and research labs of NIH's main campus. Gottesman devotes a few days a week to his own lab and research team; they study the role of protein pumps in cancer cells. Ever since he assumed his current position in 1993, Gottesman has wanted to provide formal structure to the way NIH scientists train their students and fellow researchers. But aside from a "list of expectations" he drew up a few years ago, there have been no official NIH-wide policies regarding the apprenticeship of junior researchers--until now.

Shortly after taking office, Gottesman established the Ethics and Conduct Committee "to give me advice and prepare guidelines," he says. Joan Schwartz, chair of the committee and assistant director in the Office of Intramural Research, was asked by Gottesman to evaluate and formalize NIH's mentoring strategies based upon his original list and the "principles of mentorship and training that we hold dear at the NIH." The committee, which consists of members from most of NIH's institutes as well as postdoctoral representatives, published the 20-page booklet for the NIH community this year.

The guide provides practical advice for both the mentor and the mentored: "The mentors learn what is expected of them, and the mentees learn what their responsibilities are and what they can expect from their supervisors," Gottesman outlines. It includes tips on how to train junior researchers in a wide range of skills: scientific investigation, communication, personal interaction, scientific responsibility, and career planning. The first press run of 10,000 copies is already gone, but they've ordered an additional 5000, says Schwartz. "We sent out enough copies to scientific directors at NIH to give everyone a copy and we always take plenty with us when we give talks," she says.

The need for the guide arises in part from past problems highlighted by the NIH Fellows' Committee. Gottesman's committee has handled a few of these cases in which "mentorship was not the best," he says. He suspects the NIH is not alone in neglecting the needs of its junior researchers. "We thought [the guide] might be useful not only for the NIH but for other institutions grappling with the same issues," Gottesman says. He and Schwartz leave copies of the guide at universities and other institutions around the country when they visit.

Mentoring has begun to take center stage in the professional development of researchers at NIH. Unlike many universities around the country, the NIH specifically evaluates scientists' mentoring skills. Alfred Johnson is a tenure-track investigator with a lab at the National Cancer Institute. Since arriving at NIH 14 years ago to take a postdoctoral fellowship, he has seen "a lot of change" at NIH, he says, especially in the way the agency has gradually warmed toward the importance of mentoring. Formerly, researchers were judged on productivity alone, he believes--which although a good measure of scientific success, "doesn't necessarily mean students get proper mentoring," he says.

Now, says Gottesman, intramural scientists going up for promotion or tenure are formally assessed on their mentoring skills as well as their scientific achievements. "Mentoring is specifically evaluated by our Boards of Scientific Counselors, who review every principal investigator at least every 4 years," Gottesman says. Those reviews include written reports and "specific comments on mentoring" obtained through interviews with students and postdoctoral fellows and through assessment of the productivity of young researchers. The counselors also track postdoctoral fellows once they leave an NIH lab, evaluating their transition to a new position.

Orna Cohen-Fix started working at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases just over a year ago. A former postdoc at the Carnegie Institute of Washington in Baltimore, she found mentoring came relatively easy to her because during her graduate training and postdoc periods she had excellent mentors. "I could learn from them and they were very open-minded. We could discuss anything; they made mistakes, but they were willing to share their thoughts with me," she says. "What I like is that NIH is placing more of an emphasis on mentoring. Just putting out the guide is a good thing in itself." In her opinion, tenure-track scientists will heed the advice of the guide more than established and tenured investigators, who she believes will continue to treat their staffs and students as they always have. Assessing what happens to postdocs once they leave an NIH lab is also a good idea, Cohen-Fix says. "If your postdocs fail, people ask, 'What kind of advisor are you?'"

One conundrum facing new mentors is figuring out how to handle mentoring responsibilities. When should you speak up and when should you stay quiet? Should you let your students figure out their chances of success on their own? "I've talked to other people about this and it's something they say they deal with constantly," says Cohen-Fix. There's one way to know when you've become a mentor, teases Cohen-Fix: "when you walk into your lab and everyone goes quiet!"

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