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.
Dr. Philip Campbell is Editor-in-Chief of Nature and of the Nature Publishing Group. His areas of responsibility include the editorial content and management of Nature, and assuring the long-term quality of all Nature publications. He is based in London. He has a BSc in aeronautical engineering, an MSc in astrophysics and a PhD and postdoctoral research in upper atmospheric physics. Following his research, he became the Physical Sciences Editor of Nature and then, in 1988, the founding editor of Physics World, the international magazine of the UK Institute of Physics. He returned to Nature to take on his current role in 1995. He has worked with the UK Office of Science and Innovation, the European Commission and the US National Institutes of Health on issues relating to science and its impacts in society. He is a trustee of Cancer Research UK. He is an elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics, and was awarded an honorary DSc by Leicester University and Bristol University, and an Honorary Professorship by the Peking Union Medical College. He is an Associate of Clare Hall, Cambridge University.
“She has focused on equipping people with the skills to be fully functioning members of the scientific community, able to prepare grant applications, review manuscripts, speak at conferences and engage with scientific administrators in a constructive manner. Such a holistic approach to running a scientific group will ultimately bring enormous benefit to the group’s alumni, giving them all the skills necessary to carve out their own niches in the academic world.“
This quote illustrates a basic aspect of mentoring that one would like to take for granted in every lab: equipping students for the range of professional tasks expected of any researcher. But when I have interviewed postdoc applicants for jobs at Nature, all too often I hear that at key stages of their career, and often in prestigious universities, they have been left very much to make their own way, sometimes helped by researchers other than their lab head. It was this that stimulated me to create the Nature annual mentoring awards.
The quote above comes from a nomination form for the awards. Nature has been running this awards scheme since 2005. Each year we focus on a particular country or region – this year it’s the Nordic countries – see here for more information. For each nomination, five researchers must gather their separate nominations of an outstanding mentor who mentored them at different stages of his or her career, and submit them along with a form from the nominee. The two awards are for a lifetime achivement and for an outstanding mid-career track record. At €10,000 each, the awards are not trivial.
The above quote can also be found in an article that summarises the best of scientific mentoring as expressed in the many nominations received for the Australasian competition in 2006 – see here. This guide to mentoring highlights many other attributes exhibited time and again by the nominees. I’d highlight the following as particularly important:
- Enthusiasm: outstanding mentors tend to be not only outstanding scientists but also boundless in their enthusiasm and optimism.
- Open door: despite their own success and many commitments, outstanding mentors appear always to be available when you need them.
- Cater for all types: outstanding mentors have empathy for their students regardless of their personality types, and will have an instinct for how best to engage with each of them.
- Challenging and listening: outstanding mentors know when and how to challenge and push but also when to listen supportively.
- Direction and self-direction: outstanding mentors know when to provide direction and when to stimulate inexperienced researchers to find their own way and thereby develop self-confidence.
These are just some of the characteristics common to the best mentors. In order to reach a judgement about the candidates for the awards, I felt that it would be essential to allow nominators to include anecdotes about their interactions, rather than rely on a catalogue of extraordinary protégés. These really have helped put flesh on remarkable histories of mentoring.
I have also felt it important to embed each year’s competition in the culture of the country or region, rather than expect a particular style of mentoring. Perhaps the most notable cultural contrast in this respect arose when we held the awards in Japan. In preparing the nomination forms with the judges, considerable concern was expressed at the very idea of a student telling anecdotes about his or her interactions with a lab head. In the event, the anecdotes materialized.
I began with a quote that for me represents the very least of what one should expect from a lab head. But there is a much less definable quality bound up in the character of a successful mentor – a capacity to inspire. And yet even this can require a particular type of dedication. I’ll finish with a quote from an award nominee that makes the point:
“It is the nature of supervision that you have to explain/teach some key concept time after time as each new student arrives. Each time I had to make it feel to the student postdoc that it was the first time I had ever explained the concept; each time I had to tell it with sparkle to help inspire them to seek to know more. At times it was hard to stay ‘inspirational’; but to fail would have meant to me that I should quit as a supervisor. You need to understand, as an old and wise friend once said to me, ‘Remember, they stay the same age, you get older!'”