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.




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