Science in the modern world is never done in a vacuum; every single discovery is a result of the coordinated efforts of a team of scientists working together to answer important questions.
If success is to be expected, every graduate student, post-doc, and early-career professor should have a mentor or a team of mentors. In a scientific setting, this person is typically the principal investigator (PI), who directs the lab and projects happening therein. PIs and their mentees have a very interdependent relationship. A mentee benefits from the guidance of a more experienced scientist, who has made the mistakes and knows what to watch out for. Conversely, PIs often have more duties than getting research done, so they rely on their mentees in this respect. If these two parties aren’t working well together, research progress slows, and sometimes even comes to a screeching halt.
At this point in my career, I’m still a baby fledgling Ph.D. student and, thus, have a lot more experience being the mentee than the mentor. However, a recent experience at a conference gave me insight into the mentor-mentee relationship from a perspective different than my own.
I was fortunate to meet one of my PI’s post-doctoral mentors (academics like to do family trees, so he’d be like…my academic great uncle or something). We chatted for a bit, and my professor brought up an experience that she had while working under him as a post-doctoral fellow, in which she was doing some experiments that her mentor was apparently not 100% on board with. While she was in the middle of a complicated procedure in the lab, he walked up, asked her what she was doing, and then said something to the effect of “this experiment is stupid and will never work.” My professor laughed about this experience and, in an “I-told-you-so” manner, mentioned that the experiment did indeed work and the study wound up being published in a very prestigious journal.
Her former mentor chuckled at the anecdote. My PI’s attention was taken by a visitor, leaving me alone with her former mentor, who said, “I’m trying to do better about that.”
I asked what he meant. He admitted that many of his past interactions with mentees were negative and even damaging in some circumstances. He told me that he was making a conscious effort to be more empathetic and to think more about the people involved in the scientific process, instead of solely the scientific principles. Criticism, skepticism, and critical thinking are vital parts of the scientific process, so being able to give and receive criticism about scientific work is essential. However, because scientists are people (surprise!), they have feelings, especially about projects on which they spend months, and maybe even years, of their lives. This conversation was an interesting glimpse into the intricate nature of balancing the quest for scientific excellence with human relationships.
My follow-up question: “What caused the change?”
He said that a recent experience made it very clear to him, and he took it to heart. I don’t know if a colleague or mentee had talked with him about it, or if he’d just reached a critical threshold of anecdotes (like my PI’s story) bringing up his past communication mistakes.
This brief interaction with my mentor and academic great uncle taught me a few important things about the mentor-mentee relationship. First, it re-emphasized the oft-repeated phrase from Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility. Communication from a mentor can have either a drastically negative or a refreshingly positive impact on a mentee. Second, I learned that everyone is human, and everyone can change. While we (rightly) get riled up when we hear about people in power abusing their position, this experience gave me a little glimpse into the fact that mentors are also humans, have flaws, and work on bettering themselves just as much as I do. Honestly, it gives me hope as I move into future roles as a mentor, knowing that I can learn from others’ mistakes and do my best to be supportive to my mentees.
Edited by Evan Arnet and Benjamin Greulich