September 2011

The importance of mentorship

Michael Chamberlin was
Pfeffer's undergraduate
 adviser at the University
of California, Berkeley.

Scientists become scientists by apprenticeship. We learn how to identify a question, design an experiment, publish and present our findings, write a grant application and lead a team. We learn how to get a job, keep a job and get promoted. We learn how to manage people and hopefully how to inspire them. We learn how to deal with ethical issues, and we learn about our responsibilities as scientists. Apprentices need mentors to teach them all these things, and different kinds of mentors are needed at each stage of our careers. It seems obvious that junior scientists need mentors; senior scientists need them, too.

Teachers and research advisers are obvious mentors during undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral training. The identification of mentors at later career stages is not always as straightforward. Some institutions assign mentors to junior colleagues to meet with them annually (or more frequently) and provide feedback on how well they are meeting the requirements for promotion. Mentors can provide feedback on grant applications and project proposals and help with staff challenges or lab-management issues. The best mentors can promote you within the professional realm: They can recommend you as a speaker at a meeting, as a lead scientist on a project or as an author of a minireview for a prestigious journal. At later career stages, mentors can provide advice regarding new job opportunities or administrative roles. They can help nominate you for awards and recommend you for other professional activities. They can offer advice about negotiating difficult situations or transitions. The most successful scientists nurture informal relationships with multiple mentors. Just knowing that one has wise counsel and support from colleagues is important at every stage.

My mentors

Regis Kelly was Pfeffer's
Ph.D. adviser at the University
of California, San Francisco.

I feel very lucky to have had wonderful and incredibly generous mentors throughout my career. As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, my mentor, Michael Chamberlin, took time to show me how to write an experimental protocol and a scientific paper. His writing skills were inspiring. I was drawn to Mike’s lab because of the passion with which he described his research question: He wanted to understand how RNA polymerase selected a promoter to initiate transcription. I remember very clearly my first visit to his office to find out if he had space for an undergrad. He took to the chalkboard to draw out the location of promoter sequences on T7 bacteriophage DNA. Chamberlin respected anyone who was 100 percent committed to his or her science, undergrads included. He regaled his lab members with tales of Paul Berg and Arthur Kornberg, his own mentors. All of us learned what Arthur (apparently) would have done if he found someone reading a newspaper during lab hours.

My Ph.D. adviser at the University of California, San Francisco, Regis Kelly, was also a Kornberg mentee – and he taught me the importance of identifying a fundamental, unanswered question. When I joined Reg’s lab, they were deep into analyzing the protein and lipid composition of synaptic vesicles purified from electric rays and just beginning to study the mechanisms by which peptide hormones are sorted for regulated secretion. Reg gave lab members a great deal of independence to conquer their projects and adopt the science as their own. In his lab, I learned the importance of sharing and discussing all the lab’s science among all lab members. He shared with Chamberlin a great enthusiasm for science, and he pushed me to be fearless to do that key experiment that would either prove a new model or rip it to shreds. Reg encouraged fearlessness in multiple arenas: Few could match his skills when the entire lab would take a day for skiing at Squaw Valley or whitewater rafting and kayaking on a nearby river.




My postdoc mentor at Stanford University, Jim Rothman, did not train with Kornberg, but Kornberg was one of his heroes. When I joined the Rothman lab, they had just established the first cell-free system that reconstituted the transport of a viral glycoprotein from one compartment of the Golgi to the next. There, I learned how to establish a cell-free assay for a membrane-trafficking event and how to try to obtain precise molecular information from such complex mixtures. Rothman showed me the value of strategy sessions to coordinate lab member contributions to achieve specific goals expeditiously. Rothman is a masterful orator, and I tried to learn from him how to grab and command an audience’s attention during a lecture.

They come in many forms

Jim Rothman was Pfeffer's
postdoc mentor at Stanford


Mentors include advisers with career experience willing to share their knowledge, supporters who provide encouragement, tutors who give performance feedback, sponsors who help open opportunities, and models of identity (1). Although at the time there were very few (if any) women in the departments in which I trained, I have benefited from wonderful role models whom I came to know through membership in scientific societies and participation on extramural committees. Maxine Singer, Joan Steitz, Liz Blackburn, Lucy Shapiro, Heidi Hamm and Carla Shatz have impressed me with their tremendous leadership and diverse individual styles.

Most recently, Greg Petsko has been an outstanding mentor to me; working with Greg has been a real highlight of my term as ASBMB president. From Greg, I have learned the importance of speaking out for what you believe in. Greg has an unusual commitment to the people with whom he works, and he has earned a devoted fan club of scientists around the world. I will do my best to continue to nurture Greg’s mentorship in the years to come, and there is no question that I also have much to learn from our incoming president-elect, Jeremy Berg. More junior colleagues also can be great mentors, and Pehr Harbury and I mentor each other here in the biochemistry department at Stanford.

Mentee-mentor relationships can bring great rewards to both partners. To those of you who mentor others, the act of mentoring honors your own mentors. Mentees, remember that there are many people around you who can provide invaluable advice, guidance and support at critical junctures. Seek those people out and develop those relationships. To all of my mentors, past, present and future, mentioned or not, thank you!

1. Making the right moves: a practical guide to scientific management for postdocs and new faculty

Suzanne PfefferASBMB President Suzanne Pfeffer ( is a biochemistry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. 





The following comment was appended below on behalf of a reader: 

I cannot agree more regarding the importance of mentoring; in fact, I personally believe that it is the most important component of education, and not just in the sciences. I only wish it was valued more by academia so that more academicians would commit to doing it, and doing it well, i.e. the satisfaction from good mentoring usually comes from personal values assigned to it rather than rewards through the system, e.g. bonuses, release time, etc.  

The value of mentoring is even more important for those that are under represented in science, e.g. ethnic minorities, an excellent example of which was the recent report on how Blacks are less likely to receive NIH funding. And, this is not limited to funding but we see similar effects in the number of faculty members from under represented minority groups, health professionals, e.g. MD, DDS, etc. and, of course, in the graduate and professional schools. Increased, and improved, mentoring cannot solve this problem of under representation but it certainly can help. 

Also, as stated in the article, different mentors with different perspectives are important. In fact, one of my most important mentors was not a scientist but rather an educator who was intricately involved in Civil Rights in the 60’s, who sought me out after I became active in working for equality. His mentorship was invaluable and like none that I had ever received from my science mentors throughout graduate and postdoctoral training. I still use today much of what I learned from him as I teach and mentor. 

With this background and experience, while all the time recognizing the importance of mentoring, I wrote a book on Mentoring and Diversity (Springer 2009), with a focus on developing and maintaining a diverse scientific community, hoping to help emphasize the importance on mentoring overall but particularly for those who are underrepresented. 

Unquestionably, mentoring will continue to critical to the future of science as well as academia and society, in general, as we move through this century, especially with the changing demographics. Successfully addressing this issue that will be the “thank you” that mentors will receive! 

-- Thomas Landefeld, PhD  

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