Teach me!

Nov 09 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

This post has been cross-posted at Lab Spaces.

So today at Lab Spaces, we're writing about our different experiences with mentoring styles. I think a good mentor, particularly in grad school, is one who teaches you HOW to do science. Yeah, yeah, career advice, hand-holding and people skills are nice, but really you go to grad school to learn how to do the shit you are supposed to be doing.

When I was a grad student, my advisor spent a large amount of time working in the lab, was always accessible and basically had memorized every paper he had read.  Which was spooky. He could tell you in which figure so-and-so did which experiment in what paper. Even crappy papers he knew. He wasn't what I would call a "hands-on" kind of advisor who would hold your hand while you went through the difficult bits, but he also wasn't an asshole. In fact he was pretty friendly and easy to get along with, he had eclectic interests outside the lab and was very generous with his time. Someone you would like to hang out and be friends with. But mostly, he was an excellent scientist. He was always excited about what he was doing and extremely lucid when explaining anything. However, he did expect people in the lab to show a great deal of independence and initiative. He would of course help you pick a good project, and when you proposed a given experiment he could tell you exactly why it would or wouldn't work. But you had to ask. If you didn't ask for help he would not offer it. Thus, some people in the lab just foundered, because they never sought help. Despite being a great scientist and teacher, he had relatively poor managerial skills. During my time in lab there were a few epic conflicts between lab members, and he was totally oblivious to it. Or maybe he knew but he figured that it was better for us to deal with our own dysfunctions.

For me this was the perfect environment. I could work independently, without someone breathing down my back, yet had all the help I could possibly want form one of the smartest people I have ever met. And as a result I loved grad school.

My postdoc mentor was a bit different. The lab was larger (~12 peeps), and my mentor spent very little time in lab. However, she also let people work independently and was also very accessible to help when you got stuck. And like my PhD advisor she was inspiringly smart. In her lab it was expected that you would learn from the other lab members how to do different techniques and that you would do them for your project. So rather than having the same people do the same assays for all the projects, everyone learned all of the techniques. Sure, some people were better than others at a given thing, but everyone did their own molecular biology, electrophysiology and imaging. So again, a great learning environment. And as a result I loved being a postdoc.

One thing both my mentors have in common is that they have been very good at promoting people from their labs. Both in talks, and by letters and talking to their colleagues at other universities. As a result, most people from their labs have found decent tenure-track jobs. I keep in frequent contact with both of my mentors and they continue to be a great source of advice and friendship, and they really look out for their former trainees.

I try and maintain a similar style in my lab. My door is always open and people are free to barge in almost at any time with questions about data, experiments, problems with their equipment, comments about the latest seminar speaker or crappy paper from our competitors, whatever. That's why I'm here, to ensure they do the best science possible, since this is what we're supposed to be doing here. I know I'm not as freakishly intelligent as my mentors, but hopefully I can inspire them as they inspired me.

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