Mentoring Scientists: An Ethical Dilemma

"Get a mentor!"

Most of us have heard this advice at one time or another in our careers. But what, exactly, is a mentor? And how do you get one?

According to the National Academies? book Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering , a mentor is ?someone who takes a special interest in helping another develop into a successful professional.? So, a mentor should guide her mentee on any number of career-related topics. She should be a careful listener and is sensitive to her protégé?s concerns.

Is your research adviser also your mentor? Well, it depends. Sometimes, the answer is ?yes?--a principal investigator (PI) may truly take a personal interest in her students and fellows beyond the nuts and bolts of laboratory work. But mentoring depends on a different kind of chemistry than that practiced in the lab with acids and bases. In cases where the trainee-adviser pairing does not have that special spark, other faculty members can serve as mentors for the trainee, as can more senior students or postdocs.

Although finding a compatible mentor is not as simple as one might like, it doesn?t have to be that difficult, either. If you see the postdoc who works in the lab across the hall before a department seminar, take time to ask how her job search is going. While using a neighboring lab?s spectrophotometer, ask the PI a few questions about his own graduate school days as he walks by. Mentoring relationships are often informal--you might even have a mentor already and not realize it!

Having or being a mentor sounds so simple on the surface, but as with many things in life, it can also become quite complicated. We presented the following case study to a panel of experts for their opinions:

Professor Carol Jones has a full plate. She teaches two courses, directs the research of three graduate students and one postdoc, serves on numerous faculty committees, and is raising a young son. Sarah, a postdoc in Michael Smith's lab, has just approached Carol to ask that she be her mentor--someone Sarah can go to about professional and personal concerns. Sarah is preparing to enter the job market, and she?s indicated that she has very little idea as to how to do this. She wants to know whether she should already have a grant in hand by the time she applies, which universities are family friendly, and even what she should wear on interviews. Carol really doesn't have much time to devote to mentoring Sarah but feels obligated to do so, as she is the only female faculty member in the department. Other professors have pressured her to work with Sarah "because she's a woman." Indeed, Sarah says that?s why she approached Carol.

Does Carol have an obligation to mentor Sarah?

We then asked our experts to consider various aspects of this issue. For example, how would they define ?mentor?? Are faculty members obliged to mentor trainees beyond directing their research? Should they mentor students and postdocs who are not even members of their own research groups? Do faculty have a stronger obligation to mentor students or postdocs from underrepresented groups? Does that obligation change if professors themselves are also members of these groups?

Here?s what they had to say:

Although the case study was presented as a conundrum for Carol to deal with, Judy Illes, a senior research scholar at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, asks this insightful question: ?Why is Sarah exploring possibilities for mentoring only now?? Illes also has useful advice for would-be protégés.

In her essay, Karen Ross, postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), stresses the importance of spontaneity when establishing mentoring relationships and feels ?it is unfair to expect Professor Jones to take on disproportionate mentoring responsibilities just because she is a member of an underrepresented group.?

As the only female professor in her department at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, for a period of time, Julia Y. Chan ?can easily identify with Professor Jones.? She says, ?As faculty members, we should guide students--especially students who can identify with us.?

Milton J. Hernandez is director of the Office of Special Populations and Research Training at one of NIH?s institutes. He sees parallels between the case study and his own experiences mentoring Latino students and thinks that Carol ?will probably decide to mentor postdoc Sarah.?

After you've read the essays, tell us what you think. The Next Wave Forums are now hosting a discussion of this case.

Do you know an outstanding mentor? The National Science Foundation (NSF) is calling for nominations for the 2002 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. NSF expects to award about 10 individual and 10 institutional awards. Awardees receive a $10,000 grant to continue their mentoring activities over a 2-year period. Nominations are due by 7 May 2002.

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