How to find and be a good mentor?

I have in the past posted advice to new faculty and also top 10 advice list for the academic job hunt, but today I wanted to specifically talk about mentoring.

Also, stay tuned for a special post later this week with an autobiographical section from Irv Weissman on his early career and who his key mentors were.

Back to the topic at hand. What does it mean to be a good mentor?

What can trainees learn from mentors and how?

The stem cell field seems especially competitive and filled with land mines including political ones, but this is really true of any field.

Along the way, we need help in many ways and most often that comes from our mentors.

Even the most established awesome scientists like Irv Weissman who mentor(ed) tons of great scientists were once undergrads, grads or med students, and postdocs. They had mentors who were instrumental in their career development.

No one becomes a successful scientist on their own. 

I’m not going to channel Hillary Clinton and said it takes a village to make a scientist, but how does one avoid having the village idiot or worse as one’s mentor?

What does one look for in a potential mentor? How to find one?

Unfortunately, finding a good mentor is not simply a skill that can be mastered. It is probably equal parts intuition, logic,  and luck. I think one has to spend some thought and energy not only on science but also on evaluating people as potential mentors. It is also helpful if you can be very honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, and in so doing ask yourself what would be the best mentor for you?

Very intense every day manager kind of PI or one who is more the type to let you be independent? In the middle?

Big lab? Small lab?

What kind of lab culture would best fit with your personality?

When you are doing lab rotations or interviewing for a postdoc, always keep in mind that you are evaluating potential mentors and interviewing them just as much as they are scrutinizing you.

We may not always agree with our mentors or see eye-to-eye with them. Clearly some folks excel at mentoring while others don’t even know they are supposed to be doing it, do a lousy job, or actively roast their trainees over the spit. The latter might even be called tor-mentors.

The mentors during my career have had somewhat different approaches to science and to mentoring, but I feel like I’ve gained a lot from each of them.

One of my first mentors was Colin Bloor, who hired me as a technician at UCSD Med School. Sadly, Colin passed away just a few months ago, but his memory lives on in the hundreds of people he mentored or positively influenced in a variety of ways. Colin was a sweetheart of a person and had a unique talent for mentoring. He was quiet spoken, but at the same time it seemed he could resolve almost any conflict even involving multiple Type A personalities.  He exerted an extremely strong influence on people, while showing them respect no matter their career stage. Colin taught me that science wasn’t enough, you also had to help others and also develop yourself as a scientist. It’s not all about papers and grants, you should be becoming a better scientist and person along the way too.

Another important mentor was a fellow grad student of mine named Frank White while I was at UCSD. Frank embodied the phrase “the path less taken”.

When I started as a technician before grad school, Frank who was in his early 60s at the time and had been in science for decades already, was just starting as a graduate student at UCSD. Yes, he was starting graduate school in his early 60s.

Frank and I immediately became close friends and he encouraged me to go to grad. school.

In addition, Frank inspired me with his can-do attitude and work ethic. It seemed like in Frank’s mind, anything was possible in science and Frank embodied the same ethic as Colin: help other people around you. He sure helped me. He also reinforced my feeling that science is all about creativity.

Once I went on to graduate school, I had a new mentor in the form of my graduate advisor, Mark Kamps. See picture to the upper right of me, left, and Mark on the right. Yes, I am short compared to Mark, but so is almost everyone. This picture was probably taken in 1994, 17 years ago…holy cow!

Mark was a relatively new professor then and I think I was his fourth graduate student.  I knew when I rotated in Mark’s lab that I wanted to join it. I loved the science and thought Mark was the best scientist.  It turned out to be a wonderful home for me as a graduate student. Mark was an incredible mentor. Dedicated, inquisitive, challenging and an amazing teacher. Mark had a lasting, powerful influence on me as a scientist and a person.

To illustrate Mark’s patient demeanor, read this funny (it wasn’t funny at the time) story , where I flooded Mark’s entire lab and he didn’t kill me.


For my postdoctoral training, I  did my work in Bob Eisenman’s lab at the Hutch in Seattle.

As someone decades into his career at that time, Bob’s lab naturally had a different culture than Mark’s. It was a larger lab, consisting mostly of postdocs. Despite the much larger lab size than I was used to, I immediately felt at home in Bob’s lab and loved the atmosphere. It seemed like anything was possible, an atmosphere made possible by Bob’s emphasis on creative, cutting edge science, being willing to flip dominant models around (see picture to the left).  Bob is an awesome mentor and scientist. Anyone who knows Bob knows he loves to talk science and brainstorm, but at the same time he is one of those incredibly smart, creative people, who nonetheless feel no need to prove it.

Bob is very patient with his trainees, yet still motivates them.

At one point in my postdoctoral training, I came to Bob with a crazy idea. I pitched a novel idea to him about Myc. I proposed that arguably the most famous of all gene specific transcription factors, Myc, which Bob had been studying for more than half of the time I had been alive and which he had done seminal work on, was doing something totally different than anyone thought. I hypothesized based on some initial data that  I had that Myc was not just a transcription factor, but also a global chromatin regulator going against the established model in the field.  Bob did not laugh in my face or say how naive or dumb I was. He took the idea seriously and we spent hours talking over the data. In the end I convinced him it was worth testing this idea and he was just as excited as I was. Turned out we were right too!

I remember one time Bob and I were traveling together from Seattle to a retreat in the middle of nowhere in Connecticut. We had arrived at White Plains, NY airport and were driving a rental car to the retreat in the dark. We got lost a few times along the way, but it was a great opportunity to talk for a very long time with my mentor and we eventually found our way to the right place. I think of that trip together kind of like a metaphor for the postdoc/mentor team working together to help the postdoc find their way.

As I’ve discussed just four of the many very different mentors I have had over the years, you might have noticed some common elements.

I believe that good mentors consistently are there for their trainees. They have an open door and are excited to talk science. In fact they have a contagious excitement for science. I think patience is a key trait in a mentor, but it must be coupled with an ability to motivate. Of course the ideal mentor depends on the nature of the trainee as well. Some trainees flourish under more pressure while others need space.

A good mentor should be able to understand that everyone in their lab is different and should adjust their mentoring accordingly.

As I mentioned earlier sometimes very powerful mentors are non-traditional too. They might be another student or postdoc or someone totally unexpected.

The most important point is that scientists should be accepting of the fact that no matter their career stage, there is still a lot to learn and we still need teachers, just in different ways.