A Mentee’s Journey

A Mentee’s Journey

Category : PROspective

In last week’s PROspective, our department’s Vice-Chair described her career-long mentoring relationship with Professor John Boring, our department’s first Chair. Her moving description prompted me to reflect on my good fortune to have had outstanding mentoring beginning even as an undergraduate. Today, I will share a snippet from the three main mentors I have had and what I learned from each of them. The main theme is that it is important to learn to take constructive feedback and to act on it.

Rigor


For my undergraduate research opportunity project, I worked in the laboratory of Marie Chow. She was a newly appointed Assistant Professor, and she focused on the genetics and protein structure of the polio virus. She and a post-doc in the lab were the first to sequence the polio virus genome, a result they published in Science while I was working in the lab. At any given moment, Marie might come into the lab and ask what you were doing, what each step in the experiment was meant to do, the importance of each reagent, how you made the reagent, and to show her where you had documented it all in your lab notebook. At first it was terrifying and felt confrontational, but she was an equal-opportunity interrogator. I got the same treatment as the two post-docs, PhD student, and technician. We all heard one another go through it. We became used to it, and came to understand that she was setting a standard for rigor in her laboratory that was paying dividends. When you hear me talk about the importance of rigor, you are hearing me channel Marie Chow.

Sponsorship


My first full-time job was at an environmental health consulting company owned by Laura Green. Laura and Marie were friends from their post-doc days, and I later learned that Laura would never have hired me without Marie’s encouragement. Sponsorship is an important role of a good mentor; Marie made a difference again for me at this critical time. My first writing assignment was to prepare a summary of the carcinogenicity of trichlorethylene. I did the research, wrote what I found, and handed it over for Laura to review. The next morning, she sat down across from me and said, “Did you write an outline?” I thought I would be fired. Instead, she worked with me to improve that piece and many others over time. Laura has outstanding interpersonal skills. Watching her over ten years set standards for communication that I still aspire to meet. She and I talk a couple times each year and I learn something new and important every time.

Collegiality


My first academic job was as a project manager working with Professor Rebecca Silliman. Becky had a growing research program in breast cancer survivorship. She was ultimately a member of my PhD committee and has been a mentor to me throughout my academic career. She is retired now, but I still talk with her every second Monday and value that time immensely. I realize that she is the one person who has only my interests in mind, and she has seen it all in the academic environment. Just last week, she kept me from making a mistake by anticipating the long-view fallout. I once asked her what she thinks was her main secret for success and she answered, “I choose my collaborators well.” When you hear me talk about the importance of collegiality, I am channeling Becky Silliman.

So I have been immensely fortunate to have outstanding mentoring for a long time. There have been others, but these three were easily the most influential. On my side of these mentoring relationships, I have had to be willing to hear their constructive criticism. That is a skill that does not come easily to me, nor to most people. It is a skill, and it can be improved. This week’s extra reading provides a place to start.


 

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