‘The five love languages’
in science mentoring

Scott Aoki
January 17, 2020

The five love languages are a way to think about how we communicate appreciation to those around us. Developed by Gary Chapman, a speaker and counselor who has outlined their uses in a series of books, they are:

  1. Words of affirmation.
  2. Quality time.
  3. Acts of service.
  4. Receiving gifts.
  5. Physical contact.

They have transformed marriages, helped adults communicate love to their children and students, and improved how people express thanks to co-workers. Don’t believe me? Try asking Mr. Google, and you’ll find personal accounts extolling their authenticity. As for me, they saved my marriage and helped me become a better father and friend. In the past, I let work consume all my thoughts, time and energy. The love languages showed me how hurtful this could be to my wife and sons, who value my immediate presence. I now make it to every school performance and come home for dinner with my family. They notice and appreciate these efforts.

I believe the love languages have a place in all human relationships and should play a role in how we communicate as mentors and mentees. I’m not anything close to an expert, but I have both given and received mentorship in the sciences. I recently started my first faculty position, and as I make my transition from trainee to trainer, I want to provide examples of how the love languages might be used. My goal is to start a conversation about how they can play a positive role in the mentorship experience.

The connection between a mentor and mentee can be a multifaceted mix of our other personal and professional interactions. It resembles the relationship between a parent and child, teacher and student, and employer and employee and exists beyond age, gender and genetics. The mentor–mentee relationship therefore follows its own rules regarding communication.

As Mr. Chapman will tell you, we all express and receive the five languages in imperfect ratios. Some mean more to us than others. Speak our valued languages to us, and we feel gratitude. Starve us of these languages, and we feel malnourished. Academic science is built on the mentor–mentee relationship. The mentor and mentee therefore must use all of their skills in scientific observation to identify each other’s love language values to push the training experience forward.

Here are some examples from my experience.

Words of affirmation communicate empathy and caring

The mentor might support the mentee with celebratory compliments after achievements or encouraging words at stressful times. The mentee can say thank you after personal meetings or indicate respect by asking the mentor’s opinion on a topic or experiment. I am a father of three, and my spouse is also a working professional. Just before I started my new position, my postdoc mentor Judith Kimble told me she admired how I balance my scientific career with my family life. The thought of that comment supports me as I establish a new lab and home in Indiana.

Quality time is giving someone your complete attention 

The mentor and mentee can share quality time during one-on-one meetings or when drafting manuscripts. When both make an effort to make the time productive, they show each other that their efforts are not wasted. Marvin Wickens, another mentor from my postdoc, insisted that we sit down and chat right before I left for my faculty job. The hourlong private talk was filled with reminiscing, personal commentary and professional advice. I left knowing that he believed I could succeed in this next phase of my career.

The five love languages helped Scott Aoki become a better, more present father to his three sons.

Acts of service demonstrate caring

Mentors may trust the mentee with responsibility, such as speaking at a conference on their behalf. Mentees may do a task requested by the mentor. Each might make a point of attending an event that is important to the other. When I was in veterinary school, my research mentor, Thomas North, attended all my summer research presentations. Many of them were cringeworthy, but he always remarked on at least one highlight from my talk. And at that time, highlights were few and far between.

Receiving gifts can include group celebrations or sharing food. Gifts do not need to cost much to mean something. Mentees can write thank you notes to their mentors for recommendation letters. My Ph.D. mentor, Steve Harrison, bought me a Kit Kat candy bar after my first thesis committee meeting. I still buy him a Kit Kat whenever I see him.

Physical touch can be problematic in academic or professional settings 

While many forms of touch may be unwanted or are unacceptable in the workplace, both mentors and mentees can work to make eye contact and exchange a handshake or a smile in the hallway. During my early days in graduate school, I worked closely with Ethan Settembre, a postdoc with Harrison, before he left for a job in industry. He came back for my thesis defense and shook my hand, an act that confirmed I had become a full-fledged scientist.

Every scientist has mentorship stories that are infused with the love languages. When I have stormy days, I look back on the events described above. I hope to share similar experiences with my mentees and future mentors in this next phase of my career.

Scott Aoki

Scott Aoki grew up in Hawaii, earned a veterinary degree from the University of California, Davis, obtained a Ph.D. at Harvard University and did his postdoc work at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

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