The latest Soapbox Science mini-series focuses on the role of mentors in science. Tying in with this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, where almost 600 young scientists have the opportunity to meet each other and 25 Nobel laureates, we’ll be looking at the importance of supportive relationships and role models. We’ll hear from a mix of mentors, mentees and projects set up to support scientists and we aim to explore not just the positive examples of good mentoring but what can happen when these key relationships are absent or break down. For more discussions around this year’s Lindau meeting, check out the Lindau Nobel Community site.
Michael Habib is originally from Baltimore, MD and he completed his B.A. and M.S. work at the University of Virginia, and his Ph.D. work at Johns Hopkins. His academic interests fall mostly in the realm of anatomy, biomechanics, and comparative zoology. One of his interests is in flight biomechanics and he has focused recently on the flight abilities of giant Late Cretaceous pterosaurs, which were the largest flying animals of all time. Michael also work on problems related to the flight performance and skeletal reinforcement of living birds and bats. Outside of academia, he enjoys Kung Fu training, as well as inline skating, illustration and orchid growing.
I am an anatomist, paleontologist, and biomechanist. I pursue answers to a range of research questions typically united by concepts of motion in animal systems, including animal flight, mechanics of swimming, blood flow dynamics, and collective motion. I spend much of my time trying to reconstruct these features in fossil systems, and this deep time perspective is somewhat rare in my subfield.
I currently work as an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, where I teach human gross anatomy for medical students in their first and second years of instruction. I split my time outside the teaching lab working with live animal experiments, animal dissection, analysis of fossil material (often at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County), and occasional fieldwork.
This eclectic background evolved over time from extensive training in biology, both in the traditional sense (Bachelors and Masters in Biology, PhD in Functional Anatomy) and through assorted internships, jobs, and teaching positions (e.g. eight years in zoo/aquarium animal husbandry). Along the way, I was fortunate to have not one, but a series of excellent mentors without which I would not managed to draw together the unusual mix of expertise I now use. I also credit my mentors with having given me a strong sense of balance and confidence in my life and work. In the case of graduate mentors, I actively searched for outside expertise and training, but often my mentors were found through serendipitous circumstances.
One of my first mentors in the biological sciences was Vicky Poole, who was (at the time) curator of Reptile and Amphibian collections at the Baltimore Zoo. Vicky took a chance bringing me on as a volunteer keeper, as I was younger than the zoo typically allowed. Vicky saw unusual enthusiasm in me, however, and carefully trained me in the various facets of husbandry, animal behavior, and animal handling required for the proper care of exotic reptiles and amphibians. Vicky taught me to be always observant. I was ultimately entrusted with the care of dozens of rare species, some of which were breeding at the zoo for the first time. That trust inspired me to put my best foot forward at all times.
Not all of my mentors have been biologists. I have been most fortunate to train with two inspiring martial arts instructors over the last six years, and they have helped me find balance and calm in my life amid intense personal and professional struggles. During a particularly difficult period in my life, I was given a barrage of specific advice and critiques. My Sifu, Sean Marshall, simply sat down next to me one day, looked me in the eye, and just said “stand strong”. I do not remember the vast majority of criticisms and thoughts thrown at me during that time period, but whenever life reaches a breaking point, I still quietly tell myself to stand strong, and it helps.
I met my current Sifu, Chris Young, when I moved to Pittsburgh to take my first faculty position. He has been an amazingly patient and affable instructor and mentor. Chris once worked in a technical field himself (artificial intelligence), and he has taught more than anyone else about balancing the artistic and empirical aspects of my thinking, as well as how to balance the competing interests in my life. Under his mentorship, I have learned to find a calm and focus that makes me a healthier individual and a better scientist.
My most critical mentor along the path to becoming a strong researcher has most certainly been my PhD advisor, David B. Weishampel. It bears mentioning that there is a substantial (albeit subjective) difference between a basic academic advisor and a true mentor. Anyone can give advice, but only a comparatively few individuals can deliver those subtle nudges of confidence and wisdom exactly when you need it. Dave always excelled at being there at exactly the moment I needed him; it was uncanny. At the same time, he never micro-managed, leaving me instead to develop my own interests and path towards a research career. Dave makes it a point to help his students develop their own projects and even write their own grants to fund independent research. He does not hand his students bits of his own work to do, even though that would save him time and energy.
Dave is infinitely patient, and he makes science fun. I cannot over-emphasize how important it is that a good mentor makes the process of learning enjoyable. On those days when the tone in the lab was just a little heavier than normal, Dave seemed to always have that perfect story to make us laugh and take ourselves a little less seriously. Honestly, I cannot see any point to doing professional research unless you are having a blast doing it. There are far too many difficult steps, far too many small failures, and much too little glory in professional research to do it if the process does not generate serious enjoyment. Good mentors make not only the end points exciting; they help us find the genuine excitement of the process of science.
I am still quite early in my path as a professional scientist. Over the next few years I will be building a serious research program in biomechanics while continuing to train future physicians in human anatomy. I am extremely pleased to be doing the sort of job I have desired since I was quite young. That said, there will be numerous challenges, most of which I cannot anticipate at this early stage. Along the way, I will remember to be observant, stand strong, keep balanced, and make science fun.