Making the mentoring relationship work

Making the mentoring relationship — or better, relationships — work
Dr. Athea Vichas, left, and her mentor, Dr. Cecilia Moens
Dr. Athea Vichas, left, a postdoctoral fellow in developmental biology, found what she was looking for in mentor Dr. Cecilia Moens: mutual respect, open communication and a lot of freedom. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Athea Vichas knew what she wanted in a mentor when she set out to find the right spot to do her postdoctoral fellowship in developmental biology. High on her list was the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center lab of Dr. Cecilia Moens.

Then a doctoral student at New York’s Cornell University, Vichas was intrigued by Moens’ research, which uses zebrafish embryos to model how human brains develop. Conversations with others in the field told her that the veteran Fred Hutch scientist was highly respected by her peers. And postdocs in Moens’ lab had gone on to successful academic research careers, which is Vichas’ goal as well.

What sealed her decision was attending a conference in Seattle, which gave her a chance to test-drive the relationship over an informal lunch and lab visit. Moens’ mentoring style — mutual respect, open communication and a lot of freedom — was exactly what the independent-minded Vichas was seeking.

“I wasn’t looking for someone to act like a manager, too hands-on,” Vichas said, a year and a half after starting a postdoc in Moens’ lab, where she focuses on the development of the cerebellum. “Her door is open, but she’s not always looking over your shoulder. Graduate students are needier, but as I’ve gotten farther on in my training, I’ve gotten more independent.”

Mentoring has almost a mystical status in biomedical research. Ideally, it’s a sustained relationship that helps junior colleagues acquire the knowledge, skills, behaviors, and values needed to have a successful career and contribute to the field. The influence extends well beyond training. Many a rock-star researcher with a global reputation and pages of publications will start or end a scientific talk by saluting a mentor, still living or not.

But the relationship can also be so idealized that it all but invites dashed expectations. Not every mentor is as experienced as Moens, and not all mentees are as sure as Vichas about what they want from the relationship or how to go about getting it. 

Models for what works

Moens modeled her style after her own mentors — for graduate studies, Dr. Janet Rossant at the University of Toronto, and for her postdoc, Dr. Chuck Kimmel at the University of Oregon.

“They both let me take the reins of my projects,” she said. “With my postdoc mentor, I felt like I was out there on a tightrope, but with a net. The net was Chuck. If my project wasn’t going in a logical direction, he was going to step in and prevent that from happening. But he wasn’t directing my every step.”

In conversations with more than a dozen Fred Hutch mentors and mentees, everyone generally agreed that the best mentoring fosters self-direction. But they also noted that undergraduates and graduate students early in their studies need more guidance than postdocs and that particular tasks — writing scientific papers was one — called for more direction.

“When [my mentees] go to write their first scientific paper, they don’t know the structure,” said Dr. Jennifer Balkus, a senior staff scientist in the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, or VIDD. “I tell them there’s a pattern to it, like a language. The warning helps. When they get their first draft back that’s blood red with comments, they’ll understand that they’re learning the language. The first paper is awful and agonizing for both of us, but the second one is much, much better.”

Liza Ray, an education specialist who works with Fred Hutch’s summer high school intern program, talked about helping young women especially be more confident in presenting their work.

“Young women can be very apologetic about everything, even when they do amazing work,” she said. “It’s not your job to change their personality, but helping them make persuasive presentations is your job.”

Bolstering confidence also comes up when mentoring across cultures, said VIDD postdoc Dr. Dan Reeves, who, like many postdocs and younger researchers, is both a mentee and a mentor.

“My Ph.D. program had eight Chinese students who had never been to the U.S. before,” he said. “They had a lot of trouble taking credit for their work. It can be helpful to show how you do it, to recognize when you can lead by example and when you should be more explicit.”

More is more

Ask mentees what they want from their mentors, and you are likely to hear a litany of needs — skills development, research support, words of encouragement, help understanding how the system works, networking tips, career advice and the secret to work-life balance.

One of the biggest mistakes they make is trying to find a single, ideal mentor to do everything. As Moens put it, “There are better mentors than your postdoc mentor for a lot of things.”

Dr. Sue Biggins
Genetics and biology researcher Dr. Sue Biggins Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Genetics and biology researcher Dr. Sue Biggins, associate director of Fred Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division and a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, had “an amazing mentor” in Dr. Andrew Murray, then at the University of San Francisco, now at Harvard. Though she has followed in his footsteps as a mentor, garnering a 2013 McDougall Mentoring Award from the Fred Hutch Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee, she never looked to Murray for all her needs. She doesn’t hold herself out as a mega-mentor either.

“Sports is a good analogy,” Biggins said. “Sports teams have the pitching coach, the hitting coach, the trainer to keep them in shape, the nutritionist.  Science is the same. You need someone who might have good advice about how to figure out how to hire and fire people, and that person is different from the one who would teach you how to give a kick-ass seminar, and that is different from the one who will give good advice on writing your grant.”

Of course, seeking out multiple mentors for different needs has its own challenges.

“Sometimes the biggest obstacle is just being shy and not knowing how to reach out,” said April Alfiler, a Public Health Sciences Division data coordinator and a member of the fledgling Hutch United Mentoring Network.

The network is a project of Hutch United, a grassroots group founded in 2013 to foster a supportive and inclusive community for underrepresented students, postdocs, faculty, and staff at Fred Hutch. The network organizes “speed mentoring” (think speed dating) and other events to help mentees identify potential mentors. It also has started a mentor database that lists researchers who are willing to serve as secondary mentors in such specific areas as applying for funding, networking, handling stress and getting the most out of the relationship with a primary mentor. The focus is on mentoring underrepresented minorities.

“Our biggest barrier is we don’t see people who look like us,” said Alfiler. “But it’s up to the mentee to seek out a mentor no matter what, to say, ‘I need to go outside of my comfort zone and ask that person to mentor me.’”

Having a database of researchers who are willing to do just that makes asking a little easier.

Biggins acknowledged that asking can be hard.

“But that’s another reason to have multiple mentors — you don’t have to ask the same person over and over again to read every grant,” she said. As to how to find secondary mentors, “For anyone thing I was trying to become good at, I would just look around and find the person who was excelling in that area.”

So you’ve found a mentor. Now what?

Moens and Vichas offer a good example of a mentoring relationship that works. But not every mentee feels that they get the nudge or the net they need from a mentor. That’s what makes conversations like the one that took place recently among eight scientists, postdocs and graduate students, including Moens and Vichas, so helpful. Organized by the mentoring network and called “Mentoring Over Coffee,” the monthly event provides a facilitated but informal venue to talk about how mentees can make the relationship — or, more realistically, relationships — work.

One postdoc, who asked not to be identified for this story so as not to offend the mentor in question, felt stymied in asking big-picture questions that went beyond the details of the experiment underway. Others shared the frustration.

“I feel like I’m always trying to have a different conversation than my mentor is,” the postdoc said: “I want to know: ‘Does [my research proposal] even make sense? Am I asking the right questions? When I go on the job market, is this going to be attractive?’”

The postdoc had attempted to ask the mentor directly, but noted, “It’s not always easy to keep control of the conversation.”

Moens commiserated. “You want the mentor to create an environment where you can ask the bigger questions as well as the day-to-day things,” she said.

Vichas, who facilitated the conversation, agreed. “I’m always asking, ‘How do you come up with the projects and the hypotheses? Am I thinking differently enough?’” she said. “Ninety percent of our conversations are: ‘Is this the right question?’”

Suggestions from the group abounded. One was to request a formal performance review, a rarity for postdocs. This led to other tips for “managing” mentors, from sending reminder emails about upcoming deadlines to setting fake deadlines that are earlier than the real ones.

To be a good mentee (or scientist), be open

To Vichas, mentees have to both know what they want and be realistic about what mentors can provide.

“It’s up to you to communicate with your [mentor], be clear about goals and find a mutual plan,” she said. “You have to be reasonable: These people have other demands. You have to be somewhat independent, especially as you get farther on.”

What Moens wants to see in a mentee is someone who is open to the exchange of ideas, which is pretty much her definition of a scientist.

“Defensiveness is kind of the worst thing in science,” she said. “Good scientists care enough about their own ideas to carry them through, but they have to share their ideas, share credit and be open to other people’s ideas. That makes a good mentee.”

Both Moens and Vichas are clear that the primary mentoring relationship is, ultimately, about the science.

“There are standard things about mentoring ­— how to be supportive and help people’s careers — but the main thing is we’re mentoring science: how to think about science, think about an interesting question, come up with hypotheses, frame experiments,” Moens said. “That’s what this is all about.”

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Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.

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