My kind of a mentor
Updated: Mar 2, 2019
A 'mentor' is defined as 'an experienced and trusted adviser' (Oxford Dictionary). As a university student, questions pile up in my head what I would like to ask experienced scientists. I seek advice wherever I go and I am lucky to have several mentors. However, I have also received scholarships where I was paired up with 'a mentor', whom I have never met, and it was tricky to become a good mentee. Here, I write about three mentors who have shaped me into the young scientist I am today.
Meeting Before taking my A-levels in Hungary, I had the opportunity to work at research institute abroad, for the very first time. I arrived bright-eyed and was introduced to Mentor A, who was going to be my line-manager for 10 weeks. I can come across as a 'whirlwind' when I am overwhelmed with excitement and enthusiasm and this was certainly the case that day. I was chatty, bright-eyed and eager to learn about my job around greenhouses.
I had a morning round of watering all the plants, cleaning up labs and keeping pests off the test plants. Then we had a 'strict' tea break - which communal within the institute - where we would catch up and have a chat what needs to be done this week. We soon established the 'whiteboard wish list' as I became more busy, where people would write down which plants need what, leave me seeds to sow and such. Lunch break was again communal where I heard more about what everyone is up to, inside and outside work. In the afternoon, the whiteboard consisted of ticks and more on the 'to-do' list. I always thought that everything on the whiteboard had to be done on that day - later realised that they were meant for the whole week. During the best weeks, I was getting things done quicker than actually was needed, and started preparing materials (e.g. sowing nets for bg ponds) for the upcoming year.
Mentorship - clarity and cheekiness
According to Mentor A, I was 'unmanageable' as I managed myself - but for me, this became the definition of great management coupled with mentorship! We had a great workflow, knowing what needed to be done and most importantly - how it needed to be done. As almost all of my jobs were new to me in a professional environment, the fact that I was shown in person what needed to be done, I was given a graph and a description and whenever I needed clarification, I was a phone call away to double-check.
The clarity of my job and seeing my supervisor at breaks gave me the greatest confidence in my work and therefore (hopefully) confidence in my supervisor trusting me with more jobs. Although I do not remember how it started - we started leaving each other treats in the office during the busy days when we might have skipped some of the breaks. This evolved into a daily motivation booster. Reaching the top of our productivity - we found a blow-up crocodile in the office which was combined with the daily treats - new posture/scenario/costume involving the croc and the treats led to us putting up with stress at work with a smile.
Who knew, that this experience would define my whole approach to work, science and well, to life. Working with plants and insects, there were many unknowns while there are though deadlines to meet and reports to file. But when we could not get a seed to germinate, enough insects for a test or we were waiting on a delivery of materials - we always said 'what we could do'. I learned quickly that there are many things out of our control and freaking out is not going to help, so we had to be creative and re-think our efforts and focus.
On the last day of work, I was given a mug saying 'Keep Calm and Carry On' but the handle was broken off as my colleagues tried to hurry up the packaging. We thought that the broken handle was actually perfect - describing our summer. After 5 years, I have this mug on my bedside table which makes me remember when experiments or life does not seem to be working out to just 'Keep Calm and Carry On'.
“ I have always viewed my own job quite differently, hoping to train my mentees to think independently, to think critically about their own work and that of others and, most importantly, to develop a sense of which problems are important conceptually and which are, in one way or another, trivial and not worth their time." — Robert A. Weinberg, MIT
Mentors B and C
When I started university in the UK, I was definitely out of my comfort zone and kept a very low profile in lectures. As I was a part-time student, I only had 2 modules per semester, lived in a little village 45 minutes by bus and worked in another small village, 5 days a week. Therefore, I only saw my classmates for a few hours every week and could not get involved around campus. But I had a lecturer (Mentor B) who would give us little challenges to ID or fill out a form related to Marine Biology. He would soon find out that I do love a good a challenge, stats and getting to the library by 6 am.
As a treat for myself, I booked myself onto a Scottish nature trip without knowing anyone else on the trip - just after the January exams. The trip was led by Mentor C, who also realised that challenging me can be good fun. As I correlated being a scientist as being a naturalist, I wanted to learn a great deal of plants and identification. Mentor C, being a - or more like 'the' - great naturalist, offered to teach a few of us motivated students to ID plants in the university cafeteria.
Mentors B and C took on the great challenge of supervising my undergraduate project. Both of them originally told me that my project is over-ambitious and unlikely to work so the motivation behind my project was to prove my supervisors wrong.
In my second year of university, I started in the library before 6 am, went to work at 8 am and then usually went back to the library at 7 pm. On the weekends, I arrived at the library when the doors were opened, and usually stayed until 6 pm.
Mentor B was also an early bird, not a fan of emailing and if I had an application, assignment or research project related question, I knew that I could find him in his office at 7 am or during the weekends he was likely to make rounds in the library. He was mainly interested the data of my research project, encouraging me to get as much data as I can, think how it could be processed in terms of stats and then we will come up with a hypothesis.
Meanwhile, we had scheduled meetings and proper emails with Mentor C, thinking properly about my study organism (brambles/blackberries), asking the right questions and all the confounding factors that I need to overcome in the field.
Mentorship - all in vs planning
As described above, the dynamics and approaches of the two mentors were rather different but in the end complimented the two parts of my project. I came up with an original idea how to answer a biologically very interesting and unexplored question, driven by data and statistics. My project evolved every time I had to defend my project, methods and data. While Mentor B taught a great deal about 'growing a thicker skin' as a scientist and leaving me to do 'whatever I wanted to', Mentor C taught me to think deeply about my subject, gather all background information and then carefully plan.
On the day I knew I processed enough samples, I went to Mentor B's office asking if I do have enough samples. He suggested that I am unlikely to listen to him as I have been carrying out my project very independently - I said that today I will listen to his advice and follow it - which was followed by an energised 4 hour chat in a pub. Throughout my research project I knew that I am in capable hands - letting me to innovate and work on my own while being certain that if I were to make a mistake - I would be told and have the ability to correct my research.
When the day came when I asked them about transferring to another university to study Plant Biology instead of Marine Biology, both of them supported and encouraged me (which could have been a sign of being a troublesome mentee....).
Mentor (?) D
During my time in Nepal, I met Mentor D who was training up scientists to identify plant pathogens. I helped putting together a newsletter written by these newly trained plant pathologist and he recommended a scholarship to work in him lab in the US the following summer. Hence, the following summer I showed up, ready to learn.
The lab held meetings every Monday, and a weekly report had to be sent by Friday. The 'workflow' consisted of many little projects, running in parallel, different pathogens and plants in a - to me - confusing way. There were some incidents in the lab that made the environment inhospitable during my first week. While in the past I enjoyed working on daily different projects, the objective of the many, random projects was blurry here. For most of the summer, I did not even see my supervisor in person and all the training and support came from the lab members.
I put the question mark whether I was mentored by the supervisor or not - as he passed that job onto the lab members. What I did learn is that I have been very lucky in the past to have supervisors as 'proper mentors', helping me develop both professionally and personally.
Now that I am looking for PhDs and therefore supervisors, I am researching the professors as much as the research topics themselves. My kind of a mentor is a scientists who challenges me, gives me independence but most importantly - helps me laugh at myself when I need to.
I highly recommend these resources about mentorship for both mentees and mentors:
Mapping a Mentoring Roadmap and Developing a Supportive Network for Strategic Career Advancement (Montgomery, 2017): https://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/izCuY6fGpyIi7B5JREqZ/full
From Deficits to Possibilities: Mentoring Lessons from Plants on Cultivating Individual Growth through Environmental Assessment and Optimization (Montgomery, 2017): https://osf.io/preprints/socarxiv/g83s9/
'All You Need Is Mentorship' in Cell (2016): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092867416302057
Group-Advantaged Training of Research (GATOR): A Metamorphosis of Mentorship (Edwards et al., 2011): https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/61/4/301/324956
Transforming mentorship in STEM by training scientists to be better leaders (Hund et al., 2018): https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ece3.4527