Lessons Learned While Building a Research Career: Mentoring Matters
I’ve been building my research career since I finished my clinical training and started in my fellowship lab in 2012. Over the years, I’ve learned some lessons I’ll share in this three-part series. First up: Mentoring Matters.
Choosing mentors and a lab environment for your training years is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a scientist. Pick an environment where you think you will thrive. For some people, that is a big lab full of post-docs, students, and techs and many projects and publications. For others, it’s a smaller lab with a very focused interest and one-on-one mentor contact. Only you know the type of environment that you need! For me, as a graduate student, I chose a small lab with a hands-on mentor, Dr. Alan Hauser. We studied the intersection between bacterial toxin production and innate immunity using animal models. For my fellowship lab, I wanted exposure to new methods of research in my chosen field of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. My mentors, Drs. Lorraine Ware and Julie Bastarache, had a lab doing a wide variety of things I had no experience with, ranging from basic research on epithelial barrier function, to translational research with patient samples, and even some clinical trials. I thought that my experience with animal models of infection could bring new techniques to the lab too. Overall, it was clear that I had a tremendous opportunity to learn new skills and take my research in new directions.
Julie and Lorraine are fantastic mentors who are generous with everything. First, their time. Their doors are always open. I’ve knocked on their doors at 7:30 AM and 7:30 PM, called them at home or on weekends, and everything in between. (This isn’t to say a mentor can’t set limits on their time, but having ready access to them when you need them is key.)
Second, their resources. Their willingness to share staff, equipment, space, and money helped me gather my initial preliminary data with extra hands to be productive. This has been indispensable as a new investigator for the times when I didn’t have my own grant funding—because of them, I was able to generate strong grant applications that were successful.
Third, their writing skills. Julie and Lorraine will each read anything I write for any purpose and will provide both big- and little-picture perspectives. I definitely underestimated how much of being a scientist depended on being able to write down your ideas and sell your story. If your mentor isn’t a good editor, make sure you have someone in your life who is.
Finally: work-life balance. Lorraine and Julie modeled ways to integrate work and life. Both of them have children so they understood that we have responsibilities outside of work. Both take time away from lab to go on vacation. I never worried about being judged for taking some time to do something with my spouse or child. They and my other mentors also protected my research time, both from encroachment by outside forces (clinic, committees, etc.) and from myself through overcommitment. The best mentors support you and help you to build your ideal career as a scientist.
Your PIs aren’t the only mentors you need—peer mentorship is critically important too! It’s easier and a lot more fun to succeed in science with help from friends. My clinical colleagues help keep my patient care responsibilities contained. My professional committees have provided mentorship from outside my institution and offered advice that was absolutely critical to my career (some of which I’ll discuss next time). My peers have walked the path of starting my research lab with me. From Shut Up and Write and Aims Review groups in my department, to a campus-wide society of K awardees, and national social media, I’ve been inspired by the exciting work my colleagues are doing and supported through the good and tough times as a scientist. We’ve celebrated successes and navigated common setbacks together with lots of laughs along the way. I encourage everyone to connect with peers and weather the ups and downs of science together. Life is not just the end goal of an R01 or tenure. Life is what we do every day to get to those end goals, and it’s a lot better with friends.
So, as you embark on building your scientific career, identify the mentors, peers, and environment that is best for you to thrive and grow as a scientist!