An open letter to Mentors and PIs everywhere…

iStock_000005846345MediumBy Kevin McPherson, Emory University

I’m a seasoned vet at this research thing. Sure, I’ve got nothing on these Nobel laureates, but I’ve spent almost five years doing laboratory research and I’m only now entering my third year of college. I know that a Ph.D. is my ultimate goal. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what research topics I want to study (now, in graduate school, and beyond); who I want to work with; and most importantly, WHAT type of scientist I want to become. Do I want to be an old recluse who cowers away from the crowds in his office thinking about some esoteric problem, using arcane language to transmit my thoughts to my coworkers? Absolutely not. I want to inspire the next generation of scientists when I append “Dr.” to my name.

Encouragement by Mentors

Why is this so pressing to me? Almost every day, interactions with my PI and the graduate students in my lab have me strategizing how to schedule the most beneficial time blocks in the lab setting. I want my day to be pleasant, I want to engage in intellectual conversation, and I want people who encourage me to think independently. If these are things I want now, I can only imagine what undergraduate students in a decade or two from now would want. In a world where undergraduate students are bombarded by classwork, extracurricular activities, and, of course, social obligations, our time is precious to us. Students, especially here at Emory University, have a hard time saying “no” to things. Every second counts and every second I spend in the lab, I want a colleague who inspires me to come back the next day, even if my Westerns didn’t work out or I screwed up a protein assay.  I think that’s the key to being a good scientist: encouragement. Science isn’t about the end results; it’s about the process. Without the proper encouragement, many undergraduates fall by the wayside. I know I’ve thought about quitting when I didn’t get the results I expected.

Be a Role Model

I think the most telling role model I have had was before I arrived at a “Research 1” university. Before I transferred to Emory, I was in a lab with no grant funding. We were figuring out ways to use old reagents left from abandoned labs just so we could get our questions answered. I had a mentor (let’s call him Jeff), who was always a ball of sunshine. Every day, he showed up to lab smiling and ready to fix this and re-tune that. He understood that nothing came easily, especially with the atrociously low funding lines of today’s scientific world. But he kept pushing. He once told me that science doesn’t boil down to publishing. I was astonished – of course it was all about publishing, because if you “don’t publish, you die,” or so another mentor told me. Over the next two years, Jeff taught me how to love the intricacies of the techniques I learned and to question how the trinkets in the lab worked. I became astounded by my work every day.

Being Difficult

Although my setting has changed, my new mentor (let’s call him Jim) is an old-school academic. He wants me to understand everything from the bottom-up…and then the top-down…and then side-to-side. He’s a Socratic Method master: I don’t think I’ve gone a day without answering one of Jim’s questions. One instance struck me the most: one day, as I was planning out an experiment, Jim said he liked my approach. The next day, Jim came back and asked me why I was using the cell line I’d chosen. “I want to get native protein-protein interactions for my Co-IP, and an epithelial cell line like IMCD would be best.” “Why didn’t you consider HEK cells? We have a lot of those, and they’re also epithelial cells.” I just stood there baffled. I thought he loved my approach! I thought I could finally do what I wanted to do on my own terms. But as “hands-off” as my PI is, he also makes me think twice. I think that’s another critical component of a good mentor: being difficult. Although I couldn’t see it in that instance, I know I’ll get questions from the larger community about why I chose the variables I did; it just took me a while to see why he was asking about them.

Mentoring Basics

All in all, how can established scientists be the best mentors for us youngsters? Well, I think it boils down to some pretty basic principles: 1) be kind and pleasant, 2) encourage us to love the process, and 3) bug us with constructive questions! The right balance of hard-nosed scientist with a little bit of parental-like guidance is the best way to make a lab welcoming for the younger generations. Just as Marie Curie once described a scientist, modern PIs should remember that scientists are “[merely children] confronting natural phenomena …as though they were fairy tales.” Grasping these three mentoring traits will be the key to sparking the magic that brings those fairy tales to life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *