September 2011

The importance of mentorship

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. 




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