On Mentorship, Perseverance, and Generosity

Ormond A. MacDougald
John A Faulkner Collegiate Professor of Physiology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan

My approach to mentorship, lab management, and career development reflects not only my ideals but also the influence of many individuals during my training, and lessons learned from my trainees. The most significant figure in this regard was my postdoctoral advisor, M. Daniel Lane. As detailed in an In Memoriam written by Lane lab trainees (Mandrup et al. In memoriam: M. Daniel Lane, 1930-2014. Trends Endocrinol Metab 25: 437-439, 2014.), “Dan was a fantastic mentor who set a great and inspiring example as a scientist and leader, and who took exceptionally good care of his trainees from the minute they arrived until long after they left his lab.” The lab culture he created, along with our devotion to him and his wife Pat “glued several generations of alumni together as a large extended family, a legacy that will last for years.” He was a unique example of how to be a highly successful scientist, while also being universally recognized as a kind and caring man.

Why Do We Mentor?

I think of mentorship as a personal relationship in which I use my experience and knowledge to help others by providing guidance and promoting personal development. It is important to note that mentoring is not strictly an altruistic act—as researchers we create new knowledge and trained personnel, and to optimally train personnel requires more than just providing lab space and a supply budget. The thought and energy put into mentoring students and postdoctoral fellows often pays dividends back to the research enterprise and helps with recruiting new lab members. In addition, skills such as active listening that are honed while becoming a better mentor also transfer to other parts of our professional and personal lives. My experience has been that, when I put the requisite time and energy into mentoring, it ends up being among the most rewarding and enjoyable parts of my day.

How to mentor is a more difficult question to address, and what follows are a few of my thoughts on this subject, some of which I hope will resonate with you. Although I’ve written this essay in the context of running a lab, most of the suggestions are applicable to broader contexts. When I think about the skills and habits associated with mentoring, many of these can be attributed to common sense; however, it’s a little like my experience reading books on financial planning or time management—simply reading about them periodically and having them in mind helps to keep me doing the right thing and from slipping into bad habits such as getting “too busy” to spend time with my trainees.

Although it would be great if we all had the mentoring skill set of Dan Lane, each of us has our own specific limitations in this department. Thus we soldier on with our given personality and emotional quotient. As with many challenges in life, we do our best to play on our strengths while working furiously to shore up our weaknesses. One factor we do have control over is actively thinking about our trainees and considering what we can do to help them develop and achieve their goals. It also helps to view these relationships as lifelong, which adds a layer of commitment and endurance that demands focus and respect. When all is said and done, the interactions we have had with trainees, although more difficult to quantify than many other aspects of our professional lives, may be among the most important accomplishments of our careers.

Be Transparent

In any relationship, it’s important that there be trust, and an important foundation for trust is transparency. Set the stage by discussing very early on what your expectations are of your trainee. Give honest and regular feedback, and not just in areas that need improvement. Don’t be afraid to cheerlead their successes to them, as well as to others! Discuss and debate ethical and responsible conduct of research, and be open about the problems of fraud and irreproducible results within science as a whole, and how these may be relevant within your lab.

The relationship also requires active and open participation from the mentee, which will help both of you determine whether the path the trainee is on is consistent with his or her skills and goals. Sometimes you need to have tough, open conversations, and even if the results of your discussion hurt, the process itself does not need to be hurtful. I was fortunate to have mentors who were forthcoming about their prior professional and personal life experiences, and I emulate that approach. Although I try not to give unsolicited advice, my hope is that my mentees will learn both from situations I have handled well and from mistakes I have made.
I also think it is important as mentors to be transparent about the reality associated with a life in academia—the challenges of research and running a lab, the shortage of time, the vagaries of grant funding, and the demands ongoing elsewhere in your life. How can they learn about lab management if we don’t discuss the budget? We don’t do our trainees any favors by shielding them from some of the less desirable aspects of the job—they need to go in with their eyes open. Having said that, I feel the competitive job market and tight NIH grant budgets have created too much angst and negativity toward careers in biomedical research, and I continue to stress what a privilege it is to be in that small part of society whose job is to create new knowledge and to train the next generation of scientists—and to note the many perks of a life in academia, where you are paid to be surrounded by bright and interesting people, have the opportunity to travel the world, and where you have tremendous flexibility in your work schedule.

Be Realistic

It would be great if all our trainees became biomedical researchers at major institutions and went on to win Nobel Prizes, but that obviously sets the bar more than a little high. Every trainee has a unique skillset and his or her own ambitions, and it’s really important for trainees to get on a path through life that is right for them. Although it’s not always easy, I try to meet them where they are at and where they are headed. This takes careful listening and not simply projecting onto them what my hopes and dreams are for their role in my lab. It becomes easier as I get to know them better, and I try to take an active interest in what is ongoing in their life. As faculty, we are professional decision makers, but, in the case of trainees, it’s important to suspend judgment and give them space to figure out their own path. It’s also unrealistic to think that you can serve as a mentor to all. For some individuals, the “fit” or “chemistry” is such that you simply aren’t the right person to serve as a mentor—and that’s okay.

Keep the Long View in Mind

Although micromanagement is a perfectly viable approach to having a productive lab, I don’t feel that it’s the best training approach. It’s tempting to take the easy road out and tell our trainees what to do, but that is only good in the short term. Empowering our trainees to make and take responsibility for their own decisions will help them become independent in the long run. We all learn by making mistakes, and a period of “chasing butterflies” is often critical for trainees to hone their instincts for what experiments will work and which are unlikely to succeed—for balancing decisions of risk and yield.

In addition to the mentoring advice above, I would also like to share two additional thoughts with you.

Persevere

When I first started at the University of Michigan as a young assistant professor, my chairman assigned Christin Carter-Su, a former winner of the Bodil Schmidt-Neilson award, to be my official departmental mentor. In my first meeting with Christy, she asked me, “What does it take to become a full professor at the University of Michigan?” After stammering something about the importance of recruiting, hard work, creativity, strategic planning, and other stream-of-consciousness, she replied, “Yes to all those, but what it really takes is perseverance.” She warned me that there would be bumps in the road—rejected papers, grants not funded, lectures gone awry—but that those happened to everyone and shouldn’t be taken personally. Christy also told me that how I handled those bumps would be the difference between success and failure—don’t let them get me down, view them as challenges to be met, and learn from them rather than give up. It was great advice that I share with my trainees and which I am happy to share here.

In addition to those challenges mentioned above, you may encounter someone—could be your boss, a colleague, or perhaps even a trainee—with whom your relationship is intractable, despite your best efforts. Although this could be an excellent opportunity to work on your diplomacy, patience, and people skills, sometimes this is a situation that you just need to persevere through. If serious enough, it may even be necessary to extract yourself from the situation. The reality is that we often learn just as much or even more from negative situations than from positive ones. Thus even difficult relationships can be formative and positive if you carefully note which behaviors you choose to emulate.

Be Generous

One of Dan Lane’s great traits was his generosity. Some of my fondest memories from my time in his lab were the times spent in his home—the celebrations for trainees when they graduated or got jobs, the warm ambiance and atmosphere of his Christmas parties, or the time at his kitchen table going through my fellowship application. I have tried to emulate Dan’s generosity by opening my home to those around me. And, like him, I also try to be generous with my time. Consistency of behavior and ample time spent with mentees are important for developing a relationship and trust. Students and fellows also benefit tremendously if you are generous with your professional and personal network, since this will help them open doors and achieve their goals.
I have benefited tremendously from people in my life who have given freely of their time, energy, and finances. Although I can’t in many cases pay them back directly, I try to pay the debt forward to the next and future generations. If you feel similarly, please mentor those coming up behind you and also give what you can to financially support their education and research opportunities. In these uncertain times at the NIH, philanthropy is becoming more and more integral to our funding of biomedical research and all stages of education.

Many thanks to my former and current trainees, as well as Christy Carter-Su, for their editorial and other comments.

Ormond A. MacDougald, Ph.D. is the John A Faulkner Collegiate Professor of Physiology at the University of Michigan.  After receiving his B.Sc (Agr) from the University of Guelph, he obtained an M.S. and Ph.D. from Michigan State University, and postdoctoral training with Dan Lane at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Biological Chemistry. His long-standing research interests have centered around adipocyte differentiation and metabolism. Ormond is a previous recipient of the Henry Pickering Bowditch Lectureship from the APS. When not in the lab Ormond spends time with his wife and four children, and loves to putter in his wood shop.
One thought on “On Mentorship, Perseverance, and Generosity”

Thank you Dr. MacDougald for an insightful article on mentoring. I think one misconception is that you only need mentors while you are a junior person and this is not true even senior people need mentors. We should be seeking out mentors at every stage of our career. This line really resonated with me:

“Empowering our trainees to make and take responsibility for their own decisions will help them become independent in the long run”

One of the greatest results of mentoring is to see your mentee empowered to take control over her/his own career decisions. As mentors sometimes we make the mistake to want to create someone like us. Seeing someone empowered to achieve his/her own goals it probably the most rewarding thing as a mentor.

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