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Athena in Mentor's Clothing: Part Two

More than 2500 years have passed since Homer told his tales of the Trojan War. The wise guide in those stories, Mentor, did such a good job tutoring and counseling Odysseus's son (with a little help from the goddess Athena) that trusted advisors have been called "mentors" ever since. Lately, increasing emphasis is being placed on the development of professional mentoring qualities in the scientific community. Promotion and tenure at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, now includes assessment of mentoring skills, and many universities are implementing their own mentoring programs. Being a new junior faculty doesn't mean becoming a mythological Greek icon, but how do you replicate Mentor's success and why is it important to mentor your staff and students well?

Why is mentoring important?

"It might take time in the beginning to teach them how to read papers, write technical papers, and give talks, but in the end they will do much better," says Mary Lou Soffa, a computer science professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who is one of this year's Presidential Awardees for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. Achieving satisfaction, staying on top of your field, developing your professional network, and extending your contribution to the scientific community are a few reasons it pays to be a good mentor. Your mentoring efforts benefit your entire lab, Soffa says, and can contribute significantly to gaining a reputation as a well-oiled and productive research team. "People are always asking me if I have any students ready," she says.

"Faculty are judged by the quality of students who come out of their labs," says Deborah Stine, associate director of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Acadamies. She directed the COSEPUP committees that analyzed mentoring skills around the country and produced the guide, " Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend : On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering". The publication highlights ways to improve mentoring skills and provides examples of good and poor mentoring, including a sample form to help evaluate faculty members. COSEPUP are currently putting together a similar guide specifically for postdocs which will be released next year.

Shawn Fessler, a postdoctoral fellow and co-chair of the postdoctoral association at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, says that it is important for supervisors to make a good impression on prospective students and scientists. Poor mentoring can deter students from choosing a lab when it comes time to decide where to do their research. In Fessler's case, good mentoring won him over: "I chose this lab to do my postdoc, not only because the science was good, but because it looked like a relaxed and happy lab," he reveals. There are labs where even though the science is great, "the students and postdocs in them are unhappy--they're all walking on eggshells," Fessler says. "It helps to have a mentor who is a person, someone who recognizes that we are not 'data mills.'"

Brett Premack, a physiologist at UCLA for 2 years, stresses that one difficulty of being a new faculty member is creating a good atmosphere in the lab and making sure students and staff do not jump ship. "Everyone worries about getting grants when they take up faculty jobs," he says, "but the biggest problem of all is keeping personnel!" Mentoring helps to keep your scientists focused, he says, and ensures there is "a solid data stream for grants, publications, and seminars."

Some helpful tips

Another tough aspect of being a faculty mentor, Premack says, is "trying to be kind and helpful without being too friendly." As a postdoc you treat everyone in the lab as a friend or buddy, he explains, "but junior faculty need to reach a certain level of professionalism, otherwise a lab can lose focus." In addition, students may feel uneasy working around supervisors who are overly familiar.

Part of Premack's mentoring strategy involves holding professional meetings "every week for up to 3 or 5 hours as a lab group," an event that he admits can be "draining" but one he feels is essential. Soffa is of the same mind, saying that more frequent gatherings might be necessary under certain circumstances. "If students and researchers don't have much to say after a few meetings then this is a time to find out what is happening," she says.

Being flexible is a key quality in the 'how-to' guide to mentoring. "You can't do the same thing with every student," explains Soffa. "Some students work in spurts, others work steadily. Some are good in theory, others in implementation-- you have to get to know the student," she advises. "Mentors and investigators should realize the way they train one student can be very different from the way they train another." A good mentor will know who is capable of doing what and will tailor individual projects accordingly. "Investigators should design projects that do not overlap--that are similar enough for students to interact with each other but are still sufficiently different," she says.

"If you define your goals weekly, your lab becomes like a business--it becomes productive and runs efficiently," Premack says. An efficiently run lab gives your students and postdocs a sense of accomplishment and helps you mentor even better, he says. One of Premack's "great tools" is his "weekly planning sheets," which are used by each member of his lab to outline their workload for the following week. At their meetings, Premack compares the new sheet with the previous week's to determine if a student is being productive, requires help solving a problem, or is working on an experiment that needs to be rethought.

Soffa, who picked up her Presidential Award earlier this month, says, "my advice to new faculty members is to spend some time thinking about how they were mentored," which can help them develop their own mentoring strategies. "Don't only think of students and postdocs as researchers on your team," she adds, "think about them as researchers and people." Making the effort does have its returns--Soffa claims that students who go on to become professors instinctively adopt her mentoring tactics: "I see them mentoring in much the same way as I mentored them--so I know it's having an impact!"

Mentor was not alone in passing on prudent counsel to Odysseus's son: The goddess Athena often pretended to be the old man in order to impart her own immortal wisdom. You never know--if you can combine the integrity of Mentor with the insight of Athena, your own words of wisdom could be immortalized through the next milleninia.