Q&A: Rewards of mentoring

Julie Overbaugh: Globally focused, people-oriented HIV/AIDS researcher extols the value, satisfaction of guiding scientists-in-training
Dr. Julie Overbaugh
Dr. Julie Overbaugh, winner of the 2008 McDougall Mentoring Award, said the heart of mentoring “is finding a synergistic balance between the goals of the trainee and goals of your program to do first-class science.” Photo by Susie Fitzhugh

When Dr. Julie Overbaugh’s trainees describe her mentoring style, the terms sound like a playbook of best practices: great communicator, strong role model, constructively critical, good listener, considerate, level headed, a pillar of support, incredibly accessible, high standards, balanced.

An HIV/AIDS researcher in the Human Biology Division with strong scientific ties in Kenya, Overbaugh has led close to 100 postdoctoral fellows and graduate and international students during the past two decades. Last year, those efforts garnered her both the Hutchinson Center’s McDougall Mentoring Award and the University of Washington School of Medicine Award for Excellence in Mentoring Women and Minorities.

The heart of mentoring, said Overbaugh, “is finding a synergistic balance between the goals of the trainee and goals of your program to do first-class science.” She talked with science writer Colleen Steelquist about the rewards of training the next generation of researchers.

What did it mean to you to win two mentoring awards?
I think having your students and trainees recognize you for your efforts is one of the most rewarding things in this job.

What makes it worthwhile to teach and guide students?
Part of what makes the day fun is when students come in and talk about their work and what they’re thinking. I’m less motivated by having certain experiments done or goals accomplished than looking at the broader picture of a longer term plan for people.

When you are starting out, you wonder if devoting a lot of time to trainees is going to hurt you in the long run because you’re spending time away from your science. But some really great trainees will come along and add depth to your program in a way that you wouldn’t expect.

How have your scientific accomplishments been shaped by having a cadre of students around?
The students have pushed me in the direction of a middle ground where I can bridge basic science—where I’m trained—with population studies and international research. The students and fellows have really encouraged me to keep interdisciplinary training as a primary focus of the lab.

What’s your biggest professional challenge?
Not becoming somebody who’s just on a plane or in meetings all of the time, with no real input and time for my lab. 

Who was your best mentor?
John Cairns, who was one of my postdoc mentors at Harvard. He was just so excited about science and thinking about ideas. He knew I needed to improve my writing skills, so he took time to teach me those kinds of things. Writing and giving talks is so important in science, and he made me appreciate that time and effort. He’s in his 80s now, retired and living in London, and we still keep in touch.

When I came here, Maxine Linial [Basic Sciences Division] took it upon herself to do all of the things that we would now have a mentoring committee do. She helped me get invited to give talks and read my grants. Her support and guidance was invaluable to my career.

What did poor mentoring teach you?
When people stand in your way and/or don’t want to hear what interests you, they won’t get anything out of you. Poor mentors frustrate and stifle students.

What do you hope your trainees take away from their time in your lab?
I hope they pursue what makes them happy and draws on their strengths. I hope they are both creative and careful in their work, and that they take time to mentor people.

What do you enjoy most about working here?

The Center is so unusual: the collegiality, the open doors, the lack of a major hierarchy, the support. I’ve worked places where you spend every day watching your back. So when I got here, I wondered what I needed to watch out for. And it took me about six months to realize I didn’t need to watch out for anything. I just had to do my work and contribute.

What have you learned from mentoring students from developing countries?

They’ve made me appreciate that everyone has a different life, different goals, different things they’re going to end up facing. It’s definitely not one size fits all.

Some of the Kenyan physicians who came through our training program are now leaders in HIV research in Africa, and they are doing things and contributing in ways that I never could. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the chance to learn from my Kenyan colleagues and trainees.

Do you try to model work-life balance for your trainees?

People in my lab notice and like that I have a life outside of work—not because I want to model anything; I just wouldn’t be happy otherwise. If I have a grant due, I may work long hours for a few weeks, and the students sometimes need to do that, too. If they have oral exams coming, I’ll say, “This is your life for the next month. You’ve got to pass them.” So you need to be able to do that, but you also need to be able to prioritize.

Is it worthwhile for younger faculty members to mentor?
Absolutely. For junior faculty the immediate pressures are so intense and funding is so tight, but I advise them to consider the long-term value of mentoring.

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