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Athena in Mentor's Clothing

Congratulations! You finally landed that junior faculty job, hired a technician and a postdoc, and signed up a couple of graduate students to help take you and your lab boldly into the new millennium. But just how do you handle your staff? How do you coach, train, and motivate them and make them into better scientists? Starting this week, the Career Development Center takes a look at what makes an investigator a good mentor. Who is a mentor? What qualities should they have? and Who needs mentoring? are discussed in this issue. In our next issue, we'll take a look at why mentoring is important and how to make sure you don't walk into a deserted lab after the weekend.

Before sailing off to Troy, Odysseus placed his son under the watchful eye of Mentor, a wise friend to teach the boy the ways of the world and act as his role model. Unknown to any of them, whispered words of wisdom actually came from the goddess Athena, who often pretended to be Mentor to pass on godly advice. In today's world, such classical guidance is rare and even more so in the competitive world of scientific research. For postdocs setting sail for the faculty horizon, successfully coaching, training, and advising means playing Mentor on one hand and Athena on the other.

Other than being known as Odysseus' friend, "mentor" in the academic world has come to mean a person who helps develop the skills and career of another person--a student, a colleague, or another faculty member. In science, mentors can be other postdoctoral fellows, technicians, junior faculty, or established investigators or professors--essentially anyone willing to share their knowledge, experiences, and enthusiasm. Aside from the satisfaction of nurturing students who go on to excel in their chosen field, mentoring helps to establish junior faculty within the scientific community, attract and retain new students, and generate consistently good research.

Who needs a Mentor?

"Mentoring is a lifelong activity--like parenthood," reveals Mary Lou Soffa, a professor of computer science at the University of Pittsburgh who picked up her Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring this week. Her lab currently consists of half a dozen Ph.D. students, a few master's students, and a couple of undergrads. "There are certain phases when you need more mentoring, such as when you're an undergraduate or graduate student or when you're a junior faculty member," she says. But, she adds, "even people being promoted to full professors need mentoring, too." At that level, a good mentor helps established faculty members become more networked, "more visible" to the scientific community.

Unfortunately, poor mentoring and weak student-mentor relationships are some of the reasons over 500 Harvard-ites beat a path to Linda Wilcox's door every year. Wilcox, ombudsperson at Harvard's Medical School, Dental School, and School of Public Health, says roughly a third of the people who contact her are students and fellows, but just as many faculty members call on her for help and guidance with professional and personal problems. Although the majority of calls Wilcox receives don't relate directly to research, one area that causes significant numbers of calls, and one where she believes mentors can be particularly helpful, is disputes over authorship of research papers.

"To be recognized in the scientific community, it is critical to be published," she explains, but there is so much competition in research, "sometimes people may see their contribution to a manuscript differently than others." Mentors can play a big role by explaining to students and inexperienced researchers which publications are important for their careers, which ones are good for grant applications, and which papers can help bolster their next set of research experiments. Soffa, who also served as Graduate Dean of the Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, agrees, adding that "mentors should discuss issues of authorship with their staff and students before they begin to write the paper."

Mentoring postdocs can be tough, because they are sometimes at a make-or-break point in their careers. Deborah Stine, associate director of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Academies, says that "postdocs want their mentors to be honest with them" and want more down-to-earth, practical advice about their careers. Many postdocs are interested in careers outside of academia, but many are apprehensive about discussing such a move, even though they still need advice and guidance.

Faculty members may also feel overwhelmed or bewildered in much the same way as students or postdocs who arrive in new labs. "I actually have no mentors at all, no role models or faculty whom I talk to about my fears about grants or my work," relates Brett Premack, who has been a faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles, for 2 years. To counter similar problems in his own institution, Jack Child, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at American University in Washington, D.C., pairs new junior faculty members with established faculty members in departments other than their own. Not only does this serve to "create links across the university," it enables discussion of sensitive topics that new investigators may feel uncomfortable bringing up with their own department chair or colleagues.

What is a mentor?

"A mentor should be a good listener, a role model, and a troubleshooter, willing to give advice and provide guidance, but ready to stand back and let the student proceed," suggests Nina Roscher, a professor of chemistry at American University who was a Presidential Award recipient in 1998. "Mentors take on many different forms," she explains. "They can be teachers, advisers, other faculty colleagues, or other students." Good mentors should anticipate problems and offer constructive criticisms but "shouldn't make decisions for the student."

Not only should a good adviser help students explore new ways of thinking and learning, they should also act as their advocates, helping them to network and develop professionally, willing to "put their careers at least on an equal footing with their own," says Soffa. "New faculty are sometimes so caught up in their own research careers that don't really think about the careers and development of the student."

Premack, a physiologist whose research team consists of three postdoctoral fellows, two undergraduate students, two technicians, and graduate students who rotate through his lab, finds that mentoring requires a framework. "Mentors must define where the lab is going, paint a vision for the lab, and set defined goals for each person," he says, which can be a tremendous help in guiding and assisting students. "They must also teach patience and build confidence in their students and staff."

It may take a while to find your own inner mythological god or goddess, but regardless of what stage in your scientific career you find yourself, know that your mentoring efforts could create future generations of mentors to whom even Odysseus would be comfortable entrusting his son.