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Mind Matters: Getting Yourself Mentored

"When I hear the word mentor, I think of Dr. Pat Marsteller," says Holly Carpenter, a fourth-year graduate student in chemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Carpenter met Marsteller, the Director of the University’s Center for Science Education, soon after she was accepted into SURE [1], the Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Emory. As part of the program, she had weekly meetings with Marsteller to discuss ethics in science, professional development opportunities, and career options, and she kept in touch with her mentor after the program ended.

When Carpenter decided to pursue graduate studies, her mentor arranged for her to meet each of the professors in the department of chemistry at Emory. She chose to work with one of them, after having some engaging discussions about his research in biomaterials. When she completed 2 years of graduate work, Carpenter applied to enter the PRISM (Problems and Research to Integrate Science and Mathematics) program at the Center for Science Education. The fellowship program, supported by a competitive National Science Foundation GK-12 grant, provides students with partial tuition, a stipend, and an opportunity for community outreach and training in education as they continue their graduate education. "I was determined to finish my Ph.D., but I was struggling with choosing a clear career goal. Pat and the PRISM program were instrumental in my decision to choose a career in teaching and research at the college level. I found my second wind in the PRISM program and graduate school became fun again," says Carpenter.

This summer, Carpenter was among the graduate students and teachers who attended the 2006 International Conference on Problem-Based Learning in Lima, Peru, thanks to funding Marsteller had obtained. It was her first trip outside the United States, and she was energized by the experience. "I already have new travel plans to bring science and innovative educational pedagogies to other countries," says Carpenter, who is now in her second-year of the PRISM program and works weekly with a high school teacher at the Carver School of Technology, an Atlanta public school.

"Clearly, Pat and the programs she coordinates and sponsors have had a huge impact on my life and career path," says Carpenter. "Her enthusiasm and guidance have a positive effect on everyone around her; she seems to know how to bring out the best in her students. I hope to, one day, be a mentor like Pat for my students."

Holly Carpenter (left) with her mentor Pat Marsteller (center) and colleague Adrienne Doanes (right) of Atlanta's Carver School of Technology.

Holly Carpenter (left) with her mentor Pat Marsteller (center) and colleague Adrienne Doanes (right) of Atlanta's Carver School of Technology.

Bringing out the best

"Wherever independence and creativity occur and persist and important creative achievements occur, there is some other person who plays the role of mentor, sponsor, patron or guru," wrote the late psychologist and creativity researcher Ellis Paul Torrance in his book, Mentor Relationships [2] . Although Torrance may have overstated the case--some people do become creative scientists despite the lack of proper mentorship--having a mentor can be a tremendous asset.

Torrance’s 22-year-long seminal study of mentorship defines a mentor as someone outside the peer group of the mentoree or protégé, who wields considerable power and prestige in the same social system and acts as a sponsor or patron. His research found that not only can a great mentor transform lives, but also that being without one can be damaging. Those without mentors were more likely to have problems focusing their careers, were less enthusiastic about their work, missed beneficial career opportunities, and felt greater pressures to conform.

According to Page S. Morahan, former chair of the department of microbiology and immunology and current co-director of ELAM (an executive leadership program for women in academic medicine) at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a mentor can make a difference in two ways. "Considerable research shows that there are two major components at work in mentoring relationships--career functions that enhance advancement in an organization and psychosocial functions that enhance an individual’s sense of competence, identity, and effectiveness in a professional role," she wrote in a column published in Academic Physician & Scientist in 2000. When you find a mentor--as Carpenter found in Marsteller--who enhances your life both personally and professionally, the relationship can be transformative.

Finding mentors: The rules

Here are some guidelines for finding and cultivating mentors, some from mentors, and others from people who have found great mentors.

1) Seek them out

Because mentoring is above all a human relationship, you may find that, as they get to know you, some senior scientists fall naturally into the role of mentor. Still, they will rarely just appear before you with a supportive smile and a hand outstretched; you probably will have to search for appropriate mentors--and work at creating and maintaining a good relationship. "It requires student initiative to connect with the right role model/adviser," says Todd Evans, a professor of developmental and molecular biology and Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies and Director of the Graduate Program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in Bronx, New York.

"Pound the pavement," advises Joe Merola, professor and chair of chemistry at Virginia Tech. "Talk with potential mentors and ask yourself the question: Is this someone with whom I can develop a good, productive relationship?"

2) Conduct auditions

Once you have connected with people the best way to find out whether they inspire you is to watch them perform in vivo. "A good way to do this is by attending seminars, workshops, or other presentations that allow you to see the person engaged in their work," says Evans.

 Becky Wai-Ling Packard

Becky Wai-Ling Packard

"Interact with as many experienced scientists as you can so you can decide which person has the temperament and background to match your needs," says Todd M. Crawford, a meteorologist with WSI Corporation in Andover, Massachusetts who received his doctorate from the University of Oklahoma.

"Consider the kinds of support you are looking for and figure out which people can provide them to you," says Becky Wai-Ling Packard, an educational psychologist in the Department of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Packard was a recipient of a NSF Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

3) Listen for word-of-mouth endorsements

Speak to your peers and find out which people are best to work with and why. "You may hear through word-of-mouth that a particular person is good to work with or is especially supportive," says Packard. Follow up with other trainees to get more information to help guide your choices. By speaking with someone a potential mentor is already mentoring, you can learn about the person’s track record, says Merola.

4) Ask tougher questions when your mentor may be your adviser

"In science, difficult times are inevitable," says Steven Finkbeiner, associate director and associate investigator at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease and Associate Professor of Neurology and Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco. Finkbeiner suggests asking trainees about the support they received from their advisers, especially during tough times in their project or during their transition to independence. "If the mentor is supportive, these tough times can become unparalleled personal growth experiences that can pay dividends during a whole career," he says. "However, lack of support can leave the trainee discouraged and ineffective, compounding the situation."

Another key issue young scientists should ask about is whether trainees got the jobs they sought and how successful they became once they were independent. "How does the mentor handle the prospect of projects leaving the lab?" he asks. "There are never any guarantees--but beware of big, famous laboratories whose trainees do well while in the lab but fade from view after they become independent. Does the mentor foster independence or does he or she tend to be a micromanager? Do trainees have projects of their own that could conceivably give rise to new lines of research or are they a cog in a large machine, which is unlikely to be good preparation for starting a new independent laboratory. In general, new investigators have more time but less experience mentoring than established ones."

5) Recognize that one isn’t always enough

Some young scientists fall into the trap of believing that seeking out even a single mentor is a sign of weakness, mistakenly thinking they can do it all on their own. In fact, Merola says, "In most cases, people need more than one mentor because no one individual is capable of helping the person develop the broad range of skills that are necessary for success." For example, the science mentor a student needs to provide direction on how to finish a research project might not be the same one who can increase his or her awareness of interpersonal issues or who can help them conduct a successful job search, he says.

6) Become an insider

For a host of reasons, the challenges of scientific career advancement can be especially daunting for women, foreign trainees, racial and ethnic minorities, and first-generation college students; mentorship can help bridge this gap. "Often, mentors can help people learn the ‘inside scoop’ of how to navigate the academic and work environment," says Packard. "Since a lack of ethnic diversity is still characteristic of many science and technical fields, it is not as easy for ethnic minorities to find mentors who are demographically similar to them," she says.

One innovative program to address these concerns is the "mentoring ladder" used at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge, where postdocs mentor grad students, grad students mentor undergrads, undergrads mentor high school and middle school students, and everyone is mentored by (secondary and college) science teachers. The program was created by Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor Isiah M. Warner, a former chair of the chemistry department at LSU who is now vice chancellor of the University’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. With Warner’s assistance, LSU now produces more African-American Ph.D.s in chemistry than any other chemistry department in the nation. "Many students, especially women and minorities, are extraordinarily talented but begin to doubt themselves because of encounters with sexism or racism," says Warner. "Mentoring provides a mechanism for someone to reinforce their talents and abilities relative to other students."

But good mentors can also be found outside of dedicated programs. When Sagnik Nandy, now a software engineer at Google Inc. in Mountain View, California, first arrived at the University of California, San Diego as a student from India, he was fortunate to find Jeanne Ferrante--his Ph.D. supervisor who also became a great friend and mentor. The "migration process" wasn’t easy, says Nandy. "Not only were there cultural differences between the two countries, but the educational system was different here, too. Jeanne was very kind in always making sure that I fit in very well." She was especially helpful when he took an internship in New York City, putting him in touch with her contacts there. "Not only did she influence me personally, she made me a better human being," he says.

7) Give and take

At every new professional level, it is always prudent to get up to speed as quickly as possible. "This means finding others to help learn the written and unwritten rules of the road," says Morahan. Doing so benefits organizations as well as individuals. But a successful mentor relationship can’t be completely one-sided. "You have an obligation to give something back to your mentor," says Morahan. Pitch in and share your skills and expertise with your mentor when you can.

Making the Leap

What factors, both personal and situational, either facilitate or undermine the journey to becoming an independent investigator? If you have made such a transition successfully or have been stymied along the way, our readers would like to hear about and learn from your experiences. Please share your thoughts for an upcoming Mind Matters column by sending them to:

"Share your appreciation with your mentor for his or her willingness to invest in you," says Packard.

8) Ask for what you need

"Typically one doesn’t formally ask someone to be his or her mentor; instead, you ask the person to help, to listen, to give advice, or to share life experiences," says Packard. A mentor can be a life coach, an adviser, or a muse--but don’t ever expect a mentor to take over your role as a student or trainee. Try to define clearly the ways your mentor can help. Do you need advice about how to handle a sticky situation with a peer? Do you want suggestions about fellowship opportunities? Come to each meeting with a clear agenda. "If you are vague about what you want, chances are your won’t get it," says Morahan.

"Be sensitive to your mentor’s life, schedule, and goals," says Packard. "Do whatever you can to make these meetings efficient."

9) Stay in touch

"Once a mentor is found, keep him or her updated on your progress and on any problems related to your work. Ask plenty of questions when they arise, and don’t be afraid to talk about your mistakes or any apprehension you have regarding your scientific or career goals," says Crawford.

"In the same way that any relationship needs to be nurtured, work at the mentor relationship, and don’t take it for granted," says Merola. "Too many students are fearful of their advisers and don’t approach them," he says.

It is also important to remember that while many mentor relationships last a lifetime, others fizzle out as you and your mentor grow and change. Although you don’t want to burn bridges unnecessarily, be ready to back away from relationships that are no longer mutually satisfying and move on to new ones.

Passing the torch

With accumulating experience and success--enhanced by good mentoring along the way--you will reach a point in your career when more junior scientists could benefit from your insight, too. This happened to John Fetzer, of Pinole, California, an analytical chemist in the petroleum industry who founded Fetzpahs Consulting in 2002. Fetzer describes some of the intangible rewards of being a mentor in an article called "Once You Get There or Think You Have … Mentoring to Pass on the Torch," published in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry . Those rewards include the satisfaction of knowing that others value your opinions and knowledge, the sense that your career successes are being recognized, and the satisfaction of giving back.

"Each of us has been mentored and guided by others in our careers," says Fetzer. "A way of acknowledging those that helped us is to help others in a similar fashion."

[1] Funded by the National Science Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Emory University

[2] E. Paul Torrance. Mentor Relationships: How They Aid Creative Achievement, Endure, Change and Die. Buffalo: Bearly Limited, 1984.

    Irene S. Levine

    Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part time as a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

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