Mentors create environments where early career researchers can grow and develop.
Contributor Michael Gatchell
For a young scientist the possibilities are endless, but a good mentor can make all of the difference in helping their career off to the right start.
Those who choose to become scientists can often point out one or several people who influenced them and started them on the journey that is their career. Already at an early stage in one’s education, there can be that one professor who made a longstanding impact. Even seemingly small actions make a big difference. This was the case for 2008 Nobel laureate in chemistry, Martin Chalfie. He fondly remembers a special teacher while he was an undergraduate student at Harvard, who personally ensured that Chalfie had a key to the library and could read the papers needed for a course. “He went out of his way — that was a wonderful thing,” Chalfie says.
The first experience that many people have of actually practicing science is during graduate school. The advisors naturally take on the role as mentors and create an environment where they can grow. This can be manifested in many different ways. For Brian Schmidt, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, having frequent meetings with his PhD supervisor at Harvard were important. “Every morning I would bring in a plot of what I did the day before and we would talk it over,” he says. “He really imprinted lots of how to do science to me.”
Do not think that a good advisor is someone who speaks to you on a daily basis. Depending on the individual, even infrequent interactions with advisors can help a person grow. Chalfie’s postdoc advisor only spoke to him once per year about his work. “That freedom to go off and do whatever I wanted was wonderful — I chose the experiments, what avenues to go down, whether they failed or succeeded.” Chalfie found this type of mentorship helpful, making sure he took responsibility for his work.
Sometimes, the actions of one’s advisor can even define an entire scientific career. This is particularly true for Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry, whose postdoc advisor at Yale introduced him to a new field. “He introduced me to the work on the ribosome,” says Ramakrishnan. “The ribosome turned out to be this long-term interesting problem — he essentially gave me a lifetime of work.”
While advisors might be the obvious source of mentorship in the life of a young scientist, they are definitely not the only one. For someone just joining a lab or research group, the experience of someone else just a few years ahead of you can be invaluable. As someone who recently was in the same situation as you find yourself in, they can often teach you how to actually do good work on a day-to-day basis. Richard J. Roberts, 1993 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine, had such an experience as a PhD student. Roberts worked with a postdoc who he thought was one of the best teachers that he has ever encountered. “He was one of these people who could tell you what to do, but also at the end of it he would tell you why you were doing it,” he says. “You would understand very thoroughly the whole scientific process that was involved in any experiment you did.”
Mentors can take on many forms and have played important roles for all of the Nobel laureates, especially in their early careers. This need for advice does not end with a tenure position or even a Nobel Prize, but can take on new forms. In the next post I will show how the relationships with one’s mentors can evolve.