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The Scientist and the Student: Thoughts on Lessons Learned From a Mentor

Opinion

Xconomy National — 

What is a key relationship or turning point that helped you get to where you are today?

This is a great question. I suspect because it comes up so often in interviews, we tend to underplay the importance of the topic. We get familiar with the answer and over time, lose the tacit feel for exactly why we answered the question the way we did in the first place!

Given this context, I am going to offer the same answer that I did about a decade ago. At that time, I was in my mid 30s, and had an established academic medical practice with all the flashings and trappings of having attained some degree of professional success. I was far enough removed from both my science and clinical training that it was the first time I really needed to contextualize my answer and think past being able to name the person who was so important. Instead, I needed to understand why that person was so important and why the nature of the relationship that we shared made it so influential.

In my case, this person was my graduate PhD advisor at The University of Miami, John Bixby. John is a force of nature. He was on the cover of Science when he was 16 years old (!!) for some observations he had made about the hatching behavior of quail. I, on the other hand, was a brash, somewhat smug and likely intolerable MD/PhD student who had not even published a basic science paper, but had lots (and lots) of opinions about things. I applied to be in the lab when I was just 6 months into my training, and he accepted me without any (apparent!) hesitation. John was ostensibly my mentor, but that is a label and doesn’t help describe our relationship.

John was able to very effectively sense my strengths and my weaknesses and structure our interactions around them. He did not try to change me, but instead recognized that however unpalatable my attitude could be at times, there was something about it—and how I wore it—which was helping to bring me success as a student. It was his willingness to recognize this paradox—an immature student clearly doing well by most academic metrics—which defined our relationship. And as a consequence, the ground rules were set for how he was going to mentor me. I was a challenging shaping exercise for him (much more so than, say, not taking me in his lab at all), and he was letting my existing foibles and follies remain intact and on full display.

One way this manifested was how, very early on, John would let me absolutely botch an experiment (or a series of them). John recognized that although I was still learning, I needed to be encouraged to take initiative, have my own thoughts, and do things my own way, even if the consequences turned out less than optimal. He was willing to tolerate the possibility of wasted money (even then NIH grants were tight) and time, because he knew that the alternative—telling me that something likely wouldn’t work —wasn’t going to help me in the long run.

This kind of working relationship brings forward an obvious but rarely spoken truism. There is a “trust” factor that is necessary between mentor and trainee and John understood very early that I found it difficult to trust anyone. Through a relationship characterized by mutual respect (despite our highly asymmetric accomplishments) and above all patience, I came to really believe that John would guide, teach, and support me in all the right situations, and defend me in the wrong ones.

The results of this really great relationship are found in the lessons learned and in my recognition that John really did contribute in myriad ways into making me the person that I am today.

[Editor’s note: Heading into 2016, we asked our guest contributors and Xconomists for their thoughts on a series of questions, including this one on an important relationship. You can see more questions and answers here.]