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.
Mariena is a 30 year old puertorrican scientist living in NY. Currently she works as an electron cryomicroscopist, the field she was trained in while in graduate school. In 2009 she completed a degree in biophysics at Vanderbilt University, followed by a postdoc in biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario. Last year she moved away from the tenure-track to pursue a dream of working with instrumentation and training people in microscopy. She’s interested in science, science communication and literacy, tweeting, blogging and photography.
I didn’t know what I was going to study when I decided to go to grad school, but I did decide to go to a school with an umbrella program in the southern US, one in which I didn’t have to commit to a lab or project from the get-go. I could do rotations in several departments for a year, then decide where I wanted to join. The year before, while doing a summer internship, I learned about the technique I would use and become proficient in for my PhD. I thought it was a really cool approach, though I didn’t get to do it as an undergrad. Then in grad school, I saw a poster with my mentor’s name and all the projects her lab was working on and noticed that her lab was using this great structural biology approach I had learned about as an undergrad. She had recently moved to my school and was looking for rotation students and I was eager to meet her and hopefully do a rotation in the lab. I admit now that my eyes lit up that day and I started attending some of the departmental seminars and greeting her down the hall, even when I wasn’t doing rotations in said department.
After that bit of “stalking” my mentor agreed to do a rotation, but it was a bit frustrating I have to admit. That rotation wasn’t as I envisioned it. I was sitting in front of a computer, trying to process data and write a program, when I had no programming experience whatsoever. I’d majored in biology in college, and it never even occurred to me to take a class, however basic, in programming. I thought that using computers in a biology lab was somewhat strange, because I thought that biology was all about test tubes, collecting specimens or combining liquids in flasks. There was no room for computers there!
Even though it was a huge culture shock, I was still excited about using the instrumentation in my PhD lab. I decided not to place much emphasis on the computer aspect, “suck it up” and go forth. And I chose right.
The first thing my PhD mentor shared with me was that she had never taken a programming course or training until she became a graduate student. I had hope that computers would stop being scary things at some point and that it would become possible for me to learn and use computers to do research in biology!
My mentor shared many tidbits of information as the years went by. Once, when I failed my qualifying exam in the middle of my PhD, she was there to support and encourage me regardless of my decision (take the test again or leave with a master’s degree). She was at a recruitment session on the day of my second try, and she came back to school, running down the halls so she could learn the results of the exam (a full pass, no conditions, and no exceptions).
I remember my mentor helping me gain confidence in my ability to discuss and dissect scientific papers and polishing my presenting skills to the point where I looked forward to doing departmental seminars just for the thrill of it. Now, when I need to do a presentation, I prepare with my mentor in mind, with those bits of wisdom on how to make it effective and accessible to my audience.
My mentor was fair person too. She was aware of her duties as mentor, and my responsibilities as mentee. She would help me create figures for papers and presentations, and entrust me with data to create figures for meetings and grants. She sent along papers from every topic in which we published, regardless of people’s projects, so we could give feedback before papers were sent to a journal. This she did from the rotation student stage, all the way to postdocs and staff members. Sending papers our way, especially as a rotation student, made me feel like the environment in the lab was inclusive and that my opinion, regardless of which step of the ladder I was on, mattered.
Whenever anyone in our group prepared for a seminar, we’d have practice talks where the boss would take notes on what worked, how to better explain things and the types of questions we asked. I still have notes from my grad student days.
I think that the most important quality of my PhD mentor was that, no matter what career path I chose, she would support it. I decided to do a postdoc in something completely unrelated to my PhD training. As time went by, I realized I wasn’t made for the tenure-track. I had neither the patience, nor the persistence to become a research professor. I was scared; I didn’t know what to do. More than anything, I was afraid I would disappoint my PhD mentor.
Then I remembered all the times we talked about possible careers in academia. I remembered how my mentor would talk about some of her former students and what they were doing, from teachers to researchers at big pharmaceutical institutions. I never saw her disappointed when she talked about her previous mentees and was always excited about the possibility of developing a career in consulting.
With those memories at hand, I pushed ahead. I decided to look for a career as researcher, a staff scientist in the non-profit sector in my grad school field of training. I emailed her about my experience as a postdoc and my motivations to get out of the TT. She was just as supportive as ever and wrote as many letters of reference as I requested.
I did get my desired position and I still consider her a mentor. My PhD experience was greatly enhanced by having a supportive mentor who not only cared about my presenting and writing skills, but about my future and career prospects. My mentor not only gave me insight into the science, but also in the life outside of science and my graduate institution. That gave me the strength to continue, even during the darkest times of the job search.