Relationships with former mentors

Feb 08 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I've been thinking about writing this for a while. I think it was partly inspired by GertyZ when she wrote this. I'm not sure how it will come out, but here we go anyway.

My first science mentor was probably my junior high science teacher. Ms M was a fantastic teacher. She was new at our school that year (1994) and organized a science fair. My project sucked a bit, but I still got an honourable mention. And she made science fun. A year after that, Mr L became my next favourite teacher. He taught us about dinosaurs, reading maps, the Earth, the universe and when graduation came, he put on my science medal and had watery eyes. I'd never seen a man with watery eyes before and I still treasure that memory and his "I'm so proud of you" comment.

When I started college in 1999 my favourite class was Bio 101 for Bio majors (we had a bio class for bio majors and a bio class for everyone else). My professor was so fantastic that (somewhat sadly) very few classes were more interesting than hers during the rest of my undergrad (except cell bio and biochemistry). Professor O was very driven and passionate and I still carry with  me some of her handouts with notes scribbled all over because her class was that helpful.

Eventually, I decided to listen to my profs and give undegrad research a try. My first mentor was a guy in Jersey that I learned to dislike a lot (summer internship away from school). He wasn't a horrible mentor, but he had no time to show me the ropes, so he dumped me and my project on a poor postdoc. The poor postdoc could barely speak English, and between drawings, the Molecular Cloning handbook and broken English we managed. But it was very frustrating as I had very little idea of what I was doing (I still don't have an idea of WTH the project was about). I didn't get anything impressive accomplished, and I felt like a failure. I didn't want to do science after that. My impression was that if PhD/postdoc mentors were so detached and uninterested, then I didn't want to go to grad school.

Upon returning to my home institution that fall, I decided to give science another try and joined a lab in the department of Chemistry. The projects in my home department seemed too (classical) biology oriented (describe species Y, swim with dolphins there, go to that swamp an study this really weird lizard) and I didn't find the topics appealing (even though I was a freakin' bio major, WTF???). Instead, I wanted to do more molecular stuff (less cloning, more proteining, ha! I just made that up) and I found a prof to help me with that. Her lab was huge, and occasionally she'd show up and ask how I was doing. She gave me a project that eventually became pure cloning (I hated it) and I got a poster and a few reports out of it. She had a huge lab, and was known to have a temper ... so sadly I judged her as bitch (very classy of me). I swore I'd never have another female mentor, ever again (horrible, misguided judgment of an undergrad). I did ask for letters of recommendation for grad school from her, and she obliged (only if I promised to work on the stupid clones, which I did). Later on, as I learned about some of the crap that all profs (but sometimes women, more than men) have to take from higher ups, it became clear that she was doing the best she could with the limited resources she had. We haven't spoken for a while, but she does refer to me and my success in school as an example to her new students (yes, I do feel like crap).

My next mentor was a year before I entered grad school. He was very engaged in my understanding of the field and what I was doing and truly treated me as a member of his lab. We had regular lab meetings, regular one-on-one meetings, and he was an amazing guy. Because of him I learned about advances in one of the structural biology fields I worked on in grad school. Because of him and the papers he asked me to read and digest, I became enamored with one of my favourite scientists (I got to finally meet last year (and yes, he's even more awesome than what I imagined)). This person apparently liked me enough that his letter of recommendation for grad school was mentioned by the head honcho of the program I applied for during my interview. This person said that my last undergrad mentor was very fond of me and my work and his letter was amazing. After entering grad school I wrote to him a few times. I asked for his help with a question for my qualifying exam, and he was more than happy when I said, "hey Prof R, I joined a lab that uses XYZ to study ABC and it's even more awesome than you said it was." In a way (a very big way), I owe him loving science once again, going to grad school, and joining my PhD lab. He restored my faith in science.

In grad school I did a few rotations and chose a lab. And guess what ... my PhD mentor was/is a woman! Yes, a woman! One of those creatures I swore to never, ever again have as a mentor. EVER!!!111!! My PhD was by no means all happy and pretty every day. I did have some bad moments. I also had some pretty awesome moments.  But it wasn't because of her, it was all school and occasionally project related, she was a wonderful mentor. I truly enjoyed my time in the lab and I miss it every day. I miss my mentor; I miss having a PI like her. My PI (98.5% of the time) had a smile on her face, she was always upbeat, always excited about learning and science. We had more one-on-one meetings than lab meetings. She'd call me with ideas at the end of the day and we'd try them the next day. I think I flourished under her guidance. And we swore to email regularly after my defense  .... but eventually our emails became sporadic and short. And like Gerty, I felt as if my PI was breaking up with me. I think I went through some sort of withdrawal. We still talk, but I feel like something's missing. Of course my PhD mentor wrote a letter of recommendation for my postdoc. And of course she did write one for my current position. I have to say, that even with the distance (my PhD mentor is very protective of her lab, findings and projects), she's probably the person I have the closest mentor-mentee relationship with. And hon says that out of all the mentors he's met, she's WAY above everyone else.

My postdoc mentor .... well .... I should probably leave that to an entry on its own. Our relationship is almost non-existent. It's not that we had a horrible fall out ... but more that I was so depressed in his lab that I really didn't (and still don't) want to go there. I promise to write a whole entry about it. I really need to deal with that.

How are your relationships with your previous mentor(s)? What are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned and share with your trainees or labmates? Any fallouts? How do you feel as a mentor to your students? Anyone ever professed their undying love for you, your lab and/or your science?


5 responses so far

  • [...] out my today’s post over at Scientopia. Rate this: Share this:DiggRedditEmailStumbleUponTwitterTumblrLinkedInPrintLike [...]

  • Suse says:

    I consider two of my previous mentors to be my friends. We keep in touch a couple of times a year, I've been invited to stay with them, etc. They are both great people and have taught me a lot about science and life in general.

    The relationship I'm most proud of, however, is that with my first PhD adviser. I quit his lab after 1.5 years, under very dramatic circumstances. Our communication had broken down completely and we were both very, very angry at each other. There was also a lot of money involved as he wanted to keep my funding and just replace me with another student (which fortunately for me he wasn't allowed to do in the end).

    Surprisingly, this guy now writes really nice recommendation letters for me when I need a third person and we even had a small collaboration that resulted in a paper. I don't know exactly how it happened, but when the dust had settled a bit, we realized that we both would be better off if we got along. This might be the most adult thing I've ever done in my life.

    • 27andaphd says:

      What an amazing story Suse! It does sound like a very adult, very mature way of handling this type of situation. I don't think I consider my former PIs friends, but that's because I see them more as my Obi-Wans and in a weird way revere them (if it makes any sense).

  • Ria says:

    I had several excellent undergraduate summer research mentors, which got me very excited about graduate school. Unfortunately, graduate school was miserable. My adviser (SO not a mentor!) in grad school was awful...actually abusive with frequent sexist comments or behaviors as well as unethical professional behavior. It was a truly eye-opening experience. Before that, I honestly believed that sexism was something that was more a part of the past, and that if it did happen in the modern US, it would be stomped on. Not so much. However, I had an excellent senior professor who took me under her wing and helped me through, and made sure that I graduated. I still maintain contact with her, although I've never really spoken with my graduate adviser again after leaving that lab.

    My postdoc mentor is amazing. I was extremely careful when I went about choosing a postdoc, and looked for someone with a strong history of training lots of students/postdocs, and where the previous trainees were generally very happy with their mentor. Of course, I also had specific goals with the research, but I was more focused on the mentor relationship, after that graduate school experience. I knew that without a good mentor relationship, I would have no chance at a career in science (ie: recommendation letters). He took the time to train me (and the other postdocs/grad students) not only in research and science techniques, writing, and grant smithing...all of which are rather standard, but he also had the postdocs do additional duties. Postdocs were expected to manage undergrad research projects one-on-one, train undergrad summer students as mini-techs, manage junior technicians, write grants for their own projects, develop collaborations (if possible), and work with the lab manager to learn budgeting/ordering/vendor relations. He was teaching us the skills to be a PI, which was something that was stressful at the time, but so much easier to learn then rather than suddenly as a new faculty mentor without a safety net. I learned a ton, published a ton, and still collaborate off and on with him. And if anyone hears of any mentor awards available, I'd totally nominate him (already have, in fact, for several awards).

    • 27andaphd says:

      Oh how amazing your postdoc mentor! A lot of those skills I've had to learn on my own (or by reading other people's blogs) at my current position, as I never did the purchasing/vendor relations, etc. I do tend to be very warm when I make the calls, which has helped to melt some of the hearts of some vendors, etc. Those skills are definitely worth learning from a good mentor, and I'm so glad your postdoc mentor was like that and definitely made up for the horrible experience in grad school. In my case, my postdoc mentor wasn't very communicative. Tomorrow's post will deal a bit with that. Thank you so much for your visiting and sharing your experiences.