March 2010

Mentoring is a primary responsibility


The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Minority Affairs Committee has several missions. One of them is fostering the development of scientists. We think this is important for a number of reasons.

First, funding often is directed toward research areas where there is “interest.” For too long, too little money has been allotted to topics of interest to women and people of color— for example, hypertension, breast cancer and diabetes. By enhancing education and increasing the number of women and people of color who are professionals, we hope that these topics will begin to receive the funding they merit. Second, we believe in social justice— for too long, too few people controlled the gates of higher education. This has led to patterns in which only a subset of America has access to education and professional employment.

One of the ways the MAC fosters the development of scientists is by engaging in and encouraging mentoring. For example, at the ASBMB annual meeting in April, we will be hosting a symposium on mentoring, during which four speakers will address such issues as mentoring women and nontraditional students, mentorship from undergrad until tenure and working with mentees at a distance.

Along those lines, I’d like to use this column to do some mentoring. In my experience, many graduating students will be unprepared for the challenges that lie ahead. This problem is not new or unknown, but, it is too often ignored.

The education system

Science education in the United States is in need of repair. From primary through graduate education, there is a shortage of excellent science teachers. Is it any wonder that scientific literacy rates are low and that “magical thinking” abounds? Try this experiment: Ask a science teacher at a local K-12 school to explain evolution by natural selection. I have found that many can’t do this well, but will avow to “believing in it.” Similarly, the students who matriculate from our graduate programs enter the professoriate with little or no training in how to teach. As an example of this, ask a graduate student to define “pedagogy.” When he or she can’t, track down his or her faculty mentor and ask him or her if that’s the legacy he or she wants to leave.

The graduate education system is also a mess. The present system is one that allows some graduate schools to admit far more students than they will matriculate. This tremendous attrition is often ascribed to failure of the students, but we all know this is not the case. Graduate students are among our brightest and hardest working, but their programs are neither “rewarded” for retaining them nor “punished” for losing them. All too common is the faculty mentor who is holed up in his or her office writing grants and papers while the graduate students are farmed off on postdoctoral fellows. Little, if any, training or supervision of those postdocs is expected, as they too will be judged solely by the length of their publication record. I believe that, at too many institutions, too little attention is paid to a faculty member’s mentoring skills and expertise, and institutional resources are not directed at promoting the development of these skills. Mentees and students (and the requisite mentoring and teaching) in such settings are an afterthought rather than an essential focus. The students who do get to graduation often have learned nothing more than how to succeed in that type of environment. And, as many of them will ultimately not be academic researchers, those skill sets may not be useful.

So what can we do? It is no secret that the behaviors we reward will be the behaviors we encourage. I suggest that we begin rewarding students for taking chances and asking insightful questions. The current system is one that rewards students with a degree once they have completed their research project, and those who finish with a minimum of delay are those who have chosen (or been given) a “clean” project. Students who chose complex problems that require massive amounts of development may find their degrees delayed, if they are ever finished. Sadly, it is exactly these students, the ones who are driven by curiosity and challenge, who are discouraged by our system.

This situation is not unique to graduate schools. How many of your grade school teachers rewarded the students who had the right answer, and how many rewarded the students who asked the right questions? We foster this in our own children by asking them to work hard and be attentive and doing nothing to encourage their curiosity. In my own case, each night over dinner,  I would ask my daughter to tell me three things that she had learned that day. Now, I ask her to tell me three good questions she asked that day. That subtle shift resulted from expecting her to be a passive learner to being an active one. What do you— as a teacher, mentor or parent— do to reward the curiosity of those in your charge? How do you help your students learn and understand the processes of science? Which is more important for a graduate student— finishing a simple problem or understanding a complex one? What is more important for success— “finishing” one’s education or being a life-long learner? In one form or another, we are all mentors, and mentoring well is our responsibility.

What you can do

So, what is my mentoring advice to you? I suggest you make a five-year plan: Identify what you want your life to be like in five years, and start working toward that goal. If you want to teach, identify the skills, knowledge, abilities and experiences necessary to reach that goal. For example, if you want to teach at elementary or secondary school, learn about your state’s teacher certification requirements, determine what gaps exist in your education and experiences and create a road map to get from where you are now to where you want to be. For the most part, excellent teachers, scientists, parents and [fill in the vocational worker of your choice] are made, not born. Identify what you want to excel at and work toward it. The path won’t necessarily be easy, and you are likely to make mistakes along the way, but, never forget that anything worth achieving is worth working for, and what you learn on the journey ultimately will inform your understanding and future decisions.

Many colleges and universities have career development centers that can help by providing career counseling, aptitude analysis and other resources. One of the exercises you can undertake is identifying the lifestyle you would like, and working backward from there. Speaking for myself, although I find my career very satisfying I never have forgotten the sage advice given to me by a senior postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health. She said, “You will probably never hear someone utter with their last breath, ‘I should have spent more time in the office.’” Similarly, I realized long ago that no one can ever be paid enough to do a job they don’t enjoy. For that reason, I have worked to build my career around my life— I have made my career one in which I can serve my passions. In my case, I take more personal satisfaction in helping mentees identify their goals and then work toward those goals than I ever did preparing a manuscript. And, in my evaluations of my peers, I emphasize successful mentoring and leadership in my justification for their reappointment, tenure and promotion.

Phillip Ortiz ( is an associate professor at the State University of New York, Empire State College.


found= true556