Mentorship advice comes in many forms and from many sources, say Nobel laureates.
Contributor Michael Gatchell
Mentors are fundamental in molding young scientists into independent researchers. These relationships can take on many forms and evolve along the way, but they never stop being important for a scientist.
Relationships with mentors change as a young scientist’s career progresses and they gain experience. But it is naïve to think that you are less dependent on the advice from your peers as you grow. “I think you need more advice in a way, but different types,” says Martin Chalfie, 2008 Nobel laureate in chemistry. Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry, agrees that it is important to have somebody who you trust to discuss major decisions with. He maintained a close relationship with his postdoctoral mentor as his career progressed, “He was always very honest — I didn’t always agree with him — but I always found it useful to talk to him.”
Even Nobel Prize winners can be in need of advice. “When I won the Nobel Prize, I called up Steve Chu and Paul Nurse, and asked, ‘what the hell am I supposed to do?’” says Brian Schmidt, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics. “I used them as mentors, because I knew they had done it and they are people who I respected how they dealt with things.”
While one role of a mentor is to give spoken advice, equally important are their actions. The mentee can often learn by emulation. Just the experience of working with skilled people can teach a young scientist new ways to think. Carlo Rubbia, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1984, found this important whilst at CERN. “I met a lot of very nice people, very intelligent people, not necessarily much older than me, but which had their own personality, and so by interacting with them I could build myself much better,” he says.
The role of a mentor is one that is inherited. As you gain experience as researcher, you will find yourself giving advice to new scientists. This new role is not one that them mentor explicitly trains for; it is instead the result of natural interactions and personal chemistry between individuals. What defines a good mentor can vary depending on the needs of the person seeking guidance. “It’s somebody who technically understands what your issues are, but also has empathy for you as a person in the situation that you are in,” says Eric Betzig, Nobel laureate in chemistry in 2014. “It’s not enough to have one or the other. If it’s just empathy, then it’s your mother, and if it’s just technical then it’s too sterile.”
Despite the uncertainties involved with pursuing a career in research, most of those who do choose to do research could not imagine having any other job. Luckily for them, there will always be people who are more than willing to offer advice for those who seek it. In the end, the most important advice to any young scientist, according to the Nobel laureates, is to follow your passion and make sure that you are really interested in what you are working with. If you do this, then you might end up being as happy as Richard J. Roberts, 1993 Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine. “I don’t consider that I work — I love what I do so much — it’s my hobby, and they pay me to do it; it’s wonderful!”