Why Scientists Need Great Mentors
By Stuart Maudsley
OK, here’s the hard truth of science, told to me by my old mentor Bob Lefkowitz. In our many discussions (here’s a clue – this little point is very important) Bob would often run this quote / cliché past me. He would say: “You know Stuart, the only difference between the good labs in the world and the truly great labs is that the good labs have a 2% success rate in their experiments and the great labs have a 3% success rate.”
So, yes. It’s true I’m afraid. Science in nearly all of its forms, and especially so in biomedical science, is nearly all about grabbing and cherishing the scintillas of success from the vast seas of failure. In most professions, such a ridiculous return on hard work, intellect, effort, and time would seem completely unworkable and terminally demoralizing. Yet this seemingly intractable issue is solved by one thing…..good mentoring.
The original ‘Mentor’ was asked by Odysseus to take care of his son Telemachus as he left for the Trojan Wars. Odysseus hoped that Mentor would share his knowledge and wisdom with Telemachus, and help him grow and develop personally and intellectually. For a young scientist, a good mentor, using his or her collected experience and wisdom, should make you believe that the goal of straining for the extra 1% off success is actually worth it.
I really try and avoid the phrase ‘believe’ in science as too many scientists apply it to their data / hypotheses, but in this case it is truly warranted. A belief represents the knowledge of something unattainable but still worthy of striving for. Mentoring is, like science itself, not for the fainthearted. It is a largely selfless, constant, passionate, difficult, yet immensely rewarding activity.
As you can guess from my clue earlier, perhaps the most important aspect of mentoring is communication. My mentor Bob was (and still is) a master of interpersonal communication. Despite being one of the biggest scientists in the world, Bob would devote nearly all of his time in the lab to personal, one-on-one conversations. His conversations with you about your work, nearly every day, would be like a personalized pep rally designed to a) demonstrate his passion and enthusiasm for your work and b) reinforce how important your work was for the lab and the world in general.
This day-to-day reaffirmation of the need and importance of fighting for that extra 1% may seem excessive to some. But if you really want to make a difference, then this level of encouragement and management is effectively genius. As a young scientist (yes, that was me once) seeing, hearing and feeling the ‘belief’ of my boss, in my work and what I was doing, was perhaps the most important thing he could do for me. Yes, a mentor is also there to guide you technically and practically, but these are the mechanistic parts of science, the gears of the machine if you will. The role of the mentor is to make you want to get up in the morning and push those gears around with all the force and passion you can muster.
Indeed, many of us in science have self-selected ourselves for this task based on our personal drive. But the effective, caring, and wise mentor is there to pick you up when you experience the 97% failure rate, dust you off, tell you that you’re great, the effort is worth it and we are going on the right path together. I wanted to highlight those words in that sentence as this aspect of mentoring is often overlooked and downplayed. As a young scientist it is vital for you to find a mentor who is invested in your combined success and combined future.
Here we go with the clichés again (in truth I thoroughly love them as they are often immensely informative) but, just like puppies, a Mentor is for life (not just Christmas). This is the level of commitment that a great mentor really enters into. It is my hope, as a mentor myself now, that I can place myself in the historical chain of good mentors, from Mentor himself to my mentors, who have given their students the belief that we will always be there for advice, encouragement and support.
I truly ‘believe’ (sorry I couldn’t resist) that all of the wonders in our modern scientific world are solely the result of great mentoring. The technical aspects of science always change, but the essence of generous and compassionate care of students represents the real driving force of innovation and development.
Stuart Maudsley is the Group Leader of the Translational Neurobiology Group and Adjunct Department Director of the VIB Center for Molecular Neurology at the University of Antwerp. His research focuses on the age-dependent changes in receptor pharmacology associated with neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and Frontotemporal dementia.
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