Dr Julie Overbaugh was presented with the Lifetime Achievement 2016 Nature Award for Mentoring in Science. in Seattle on 1 December by Sir Philip Campbell, Editor-in-Chief of Nature. These annual awards are hosted by Nature to champion the importance of mentoring and inspiring early-career scientists. You can read the full announcement here.
Balancing being a strong mentor and achieving the more standard measures of success in science – publications, grants, and so on – is increasingly challenging, especially as we stress more and more about tight funding.
At times, the goals of the mentor and mentee are well aligned, for example, when both are striving to publish a timely paper or generate data for an abstract. But at other times, the needs of trainees to take classes and exams, or learn other skills, may delay progress on a project that is central to the lab’s overall research portfolio. If the mentor takes the short-term view on this, they may be tempted to find ways to push the research forward and pay little attention to the needs of their trainee. This approach may result in publishing first, but most likely at the expense of the trainee.
The other option is to take the long view, and realize that while the time spent helping the mentee develop as a scientist may slow progress on this one project, the longer term benefit will be a well-trained and motivated lab member going forward. This person, in turn, will train others and promote the lab, and will be better positioned to produce thoughtful science, including if they go on to become independent investigators. Overall, I have drawn more satisfaction from seeing people I have worked with over the years achieve their goals and contribute in their own individual way to advancing science than from the papers we have published.
The last sentence is the key to mentoring: the goal is to help your mentees to succeed. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
I think effective mentoring requires that you see each person as unique, with different talents and perhaps different limitations. You tailor training to people’s goals and their strengths and weaknesses. In some cases, for example, with the best students, this means just gentle nudges and encouragement along the way. For some, it is building on their strengths and also helping them see where they need effort to correct weaknesses. And for others – and this is the most difficult – it means helping encourage someone to better align their goals and talents. The point is that mentoring has to be tailored to the individual.
The fact that there is actually an award for mentoring in science speaks for itself as to the importance of mentoring in science.