Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

Sharing their successes and failures proves valuable as their students contemplate future careers.

Reasons for mentoring have often been expressed in altruistic terms, such as to “ensure future U.S. competitiveness and innovation in biomedical research” (NIH, Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report, 2012) and “develop scientific talent in American youth” (Vannevar Bush, Science, the Endless Frontier, 1945).

Yet for mentors, practical considerations just as easily explain why they shepherd today’s graduate students and postdocs into tomorrow’s biomedical researchers.

“All of the faculty here could be out in companies making considerably more money than they are here. And they’re here for several reasons, but one of those is a genuine interest in teaching. And mentoring is teaching,” John Boothroyd, Ph.D., associate vice provost of graduate education, Stanford University School of Medicine, told GEN. “One of the needs it satisfies is the need to teach, the need to feel like, I’ve shared some hard-earned information and wisdom that probably came from making one or more mistakes in my life. I’m now sharing that with somebody and that feels good. That’s a nice feeling.”

A well-mentored student or postdoc is more productive and less likely to be a problem for their lab, added Dr. Boothroyd, also a professor of microbiology and immunology. “That’s super important for them, and it’s important for me too because I live or die based on the productivity of the people who are in my group.”

Grad students, he said, are exposed to mentors through short talks given by faculty members. Students choose a faculty member whose work closely matches their interests, talk to peers about what it’s like to be mentored by that person, then work a “rotation” with their prospective mentor. Rotations typically run five to 10 weeks: “Usually by the spring of their first year, nine months after they’ve arrived, students make a decision on which lab they ultimately want to settle into to do their thesis work,” explained Dr. Boothroyd.

Talking careers

Dr. Boothroyd’s lab includes 10 to 12 people—six postdocs, a research associate or senior postdoc who has joined the staff, and three Ph.D. students. Each year, the microbiology and immunology department takes in six to 10 Ph.D. students. Postdocs interested in joining the lab spend a day there, combining a research talk with a mentor meeting and one-on-one talks with staffers. “At the end of that, you get feedback from your lab, and that’s really, really important info for me to make my final decision as to who to bring into the lab,” he said.

With a successful career center and alumni network to tap into, continued Dr. Boothroyd, faculty members tend not to provide professional development and networking as much, except with alumni from their own labs. That’s not to say, he added, that mentors aren’t concerned with mentees’ career development.

As many mentors do, Dr. Boothroyd meets with individual Ph.D. candidates periodically. The first such meeting of the year is focused on mentoring. Students complete a self-evaluation form, assessing their scientific successes and failures over the past year, their goals for the coming year, balancing time between science and other development activities, skills in which we excel or fall short, and more long-term goals.

Maggie Nakamoto, a fourth-year grad student pursuing a Ph.D. in Stanford’s microbiology and immunology program, said she finds the self-evaluation process “incredibly helpful.”

“We might talk about different strengths or weaknesses that may be more important in different fields, and then we can talk about where I think I am on those things, and where he thinks I am in those different areas. And then how we can develop them,” Nakamoto told GEN. “In this year’s upcoming meeting I anticipate hashing out mostly whether I would be interested in academia or a less academically-based but still science-centered track.”

The program—which will soon be replicated with postdocs—is consistent with NIH’s Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group, which recommended that the agency encourage institutions and mentors to provide more structured career development that helps prepare postdocs for positions outside academia, where the supply of Ph.D. students and postdocs has exceeded the number of available full-time faculty research positions. Nakamoto, who grew up in Blacksburg, VA, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. In her junior year she switched her major from political science to biology, and today is studying RNA modifications in the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, as they might relate to development of the parasite in different life stages. 

Calling for coaches

Women grad students like Nakamoto receive approximately 50% of the Ph.D.s awarded in life sciences. A 2009 study furnished a much lower percentage for under-represented minorities—just 10%. In a study published August 2 in BMC Medical Education, researchers from three Illinois schools detailed their effort to address that diversity gap: A training program where faculty career coaches provide students with both annual in-person meetings and periodic virtual coaching.  These coaches, the researchers said, are “highly skilled at teaching, motivating, and developing talents of others,” with one significant advantage over traditional mentors: “they do not face the conflicts of interest and time constraints that traditional research mentors often do.”

“Our experimental approach to coaching is not meant to replace but rather complement what research mentors typically provide,” Richard McGee Jr., Ph.D., the study’s corresponding author and associate dean for faculty recruitment and professional development at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told GEN. “Our coaches provide many of the same elements that the best research mentors provide for those young scientists whose mentors are not up to this level of skill or commitment yet.
“The coaches also are much more knowledgeable and skilled with the issues faced by young scientists who are ‘different’ from the majorities around them and the sense of isolation this can bring.  The construct of coaching groups with each coach, and the broader Academy community, has gone a long way to buffer this isolation and lack of appreciation for its impacts.

A first cohort of students started in the summer of 2011, just before they began Ph.D. training; they have now completed three years toward their Ph.D. The first few are looking at graduating this year, Dr. McGee said. A second cohort of students within 18 months of graduation, started last year. A majority of them have graduated or will graduate this year, he said.

“We have a first paper under review and anticipate many more publications on various aspects of the Academy over the upcoming years,” Dr. McGee added.

Adapting Entering Mentoring

Dr. McGee said Northwestern is modeling its academy on the Entering Mentoring mentor training curriculum developed at University of Wisconsin-Madison. That program has been adapted by users that include biomedical institutions. 

“In the past three years, we have trained nearly 200 folks, from 88 institutions through train-the-trainer workshops. Nearly half of these institutions have implemented the training or plan to within the next year,” Christine Pfund, Ph.D., a co-developer of Entering Mentoring and a researcher with the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at UW-Madison, told GEN.

Dr. Pfund said adoption of the model reflects growing interest by mentors in developing more of the support skills associated with coaches.

“Mentors are interested and engaged through the adapted Entering Mentoring-based training in becoming more effective at promoting the professional development of their mentees,” Dr. Pfund added. “This includes exploring the career interests of their mentees and helping them to find the resources they need to pursue those careers, even when these interests take them beyond traditional faculty-focused career pathway.”

Earlier this year, Dr. Pfund and UW-Madison’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Research published results in Academic Medicine showing improved skills among mentors trained via a version of Entering Mentoring adapted for clinical and translational scientists. A total 283 mentor–mentee pairs were studied at 16 academic health centers from June 2010 to July 2011. Improvement appeared in self-reported results, and even more in retrospective results.

Coaching should similarly produce positive results for mentees. But the challenge will remain to deliver such training to as many mentors and mentees as possible, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. That will require new efforts to find both time, and especially resources—whether from NIH or elsewhere—to enable the additional skills development.

Read, Making Mentoring Meaningfulthe first half of this two-part series: A mentor discusses why professors mentor, and what is expected from mentees. Do students need coaches as well as mentors?

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