From our 5th Annual Symposium: Advice to Trainees and Mentors

Top left to right: Markos Koutmos, Sara Aton, Chris Lima, and Kevin Weeks; bottom left to right: Feng Zhang, Tracy Johnson and Brenda Bass.

At the panel discussion of our 5th Annual Symposium held March 25–26, 2021, we asked the keynote speakers for advice for trainees and mentors. Brenda Bass from the University of Utah, Tracy Johnson from UCLA, Chris Lima from Sloan Kettering Institute, Kevin Weeks from University of North Carolina, and Feng Zhang from MIT drew from their personal experiences and shared best practices to become successful scientists. The discussion was led by University of Michigan faculty Sara Aton (Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology) and Markos Koutmos (Chemistry and Biophysics), both members of the Center’s Executive Committee.

“Follow your passion” is a well-known recommendation, but it can take different meanings over time as you advance in your career. For example, a certain science might really speak to you and be really exciting, but you might find yourself alone on this path. In such a case, your passion might best be the leader. The advice is to take ownership of your path, and when it is not clear, trust that your passion will make things happen.

Passion is also contagious, and a mentor’s excitement transfers onto the mentees. A good connection between a mentor and a mentee is important in that a mentee needs a role model that they can admire so they accept advice from him or her. There is also a unique relationship between the mentor and each mentee. Each trainee has his/her own way of thinking, and it is the responsibility of the mentor to understand how his/her mentee processes information to best help the mentee. There is no formula across the board but leading by example, and staying empathetic, always applies.

As future leaders, trainees need to learn to inspire and manage people. Most universities offer mentor training programs, and mentors should provide mentoring opportunities to their trainees. Becoming a leader will also require the interpersonal skills to navigate conflicts.

Collaboration is key in RNA research where different disciplines must come together to explore the complexity of RNA biology. Scientists need to reach outside their labs and connect with other collaborators. Another recommendation is to stay curious, and to keep learning outside your field of expertise.

Communicating your science and research is another important responsibility. In addition to professional publications, a scientist must write grants, and promotional pieces. Mentors need to help trainees develop these skills, as well as encourage them to take workshops on communicating science, and practice by talking to non-scientists—friends, family—about their research.

You also have to be deliberate about career moves. As early as the third year of graduate studies, you can start thinking about strategies to be attractive to companies or desired academic labs and build a network.

Time management is a well-known recurring challenge. There is a lot of professional pressure to do things that might not directly relate to your interests. Academic service can be very demanding, and the advice is to pick one or two activities that are of deep interest and close to your own values, and politely decline others. The ability to say no, when necessary, is critical for success. It is particularly important for Assistant Professors who need to prioritize their research to receive tenure. Another advice is to clearly identify the things that only you can do, and delegate others.

It takes a lot of courage to be a scientist. By definition, the life of a scientist is one of successive failures, and of learning from these to advance research. The quest for funding can be a Sisyphean process, and repeated rejections are exhausting. It is therefore crucial not only to be very excited about your own research to sustain your interest, but also to balance work with hobbies and other passions. You also need to take the time to know yourself. If you’re not happy, changes are in order. The compromises that you need to make have to be carefully pondered. Know yourself! A complementary notion is to practice empathy and keep considering the point of view of others. Know others as well as yourself!

As these recommendations were provided, they also became great reminders to all of us to “walk the walk.” Peer pressure, deadlines, competition, and pandemics are all stressors that can derail anyone from following these best practices and intentions. Reminders such as a post-it note on your computer that says “No!”, and taking a day off work each week are good practices to identify and respect priorities, balance work/life, and align with personal values.

If all these recommendations together might feel like a tall order, there was something quite memorable in the delivery of these messages. The panelists are all accomplished scientists who grew up in parallel and have experienced first-hand all the challenges that scientists face. On “stage,” they were demonstrating collaboration and a collegial, supportive attitude, radiating a warmth and friendliness that kept the audience smiling. And this attitude might be the best advice of all!


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