This year, the Department of Immunology launched its inaugural mentorship program, which pairs senior graduate students with incoming students. The goal of the program is to have the assigned mentor act as the go-to person for first-year students, ultimately helping them navigate the new program, school, or even country. This initiative is a great start to fostering more mentorship opportunities within the Department, with room for future improvement and growth. As such, I conducted a series of interviews with four immunologists at various stages in their career to inquire about their own mentorship experiences.

Q1: What makes a good mentor?

All interviewees agreed that a mentor is experienced in areas from which you are seeking support and can range from supervisors and committee members to trusted lab managers and senior colleagues. Dr. Justin Chan, a recent PhD graduate, believes that “[a mentor’s] hindsight allows him/her to see from your perspective and warn you of the pitfalls”. Difficulties occur all the time, and mentors are important in helping us get through these difficulties by providing us with a reliable support system.

When asked about the attributes that make for a good mentor, patience was almost always the top answer, followed by empathy and approachability. Other valuable traits included being able to actively listen and choosing encouragement rather than punishment. Post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Sarah Dick, commented that a good mentor will help you develop a way of thinking that allows you to ask the right questions even if no one knows the right answer.

Q2: What makes a good mentee?

On the flipside of this two-way street, I asked interviewees about the attributes of a good mentee. The top traits were having curiosity and a willingness to learn. One of Dr. Dick’s most memorable mentees was a “go-getter” who was very willing to learn from her. The mentee’s many aspirations fueled Dr. Dick’s enthusiasm to help the student by occasionally steering and nudging them in the right direction. As a mentor, she wanted to see the student succeed and had a sense of fulfillment to see the student achieve his/her goals. In some ways, I think the most fulfilling mentor-mentee relationships are established when the mentor sees a part of himself/herself in the mentee and can understand how the mentee is feeling.

Q3: How do you find mentors besides those in your own lab?

According to the interviewees, finding a suitable mentor involves being proactive, keeping an open mind, and talking to as many people as possible. Initially, I thought that this would call for a certain type of personality, but it is really a skill that can be developed over time. For instance, as a shy PhD student at the time, Dr. Dick felt too intimidated to engage with many of the big names in her field at an international conference. However, her PhD mentor pushed her to talk to as many people as possible, ultimately leading her to realize that people – including leading experts in the field – are generally willing to help and happy to talk with her. In fact, it was at this conference where she met the keynote scientist who would eventually put her in touch with her current post-doctoral supervisor.

The importance of developing the skills to approach people is highlighted by the fact that it is difficult to synthetically orchestrate mentorship relationships, because they need to develop “organically”. It is a complex process, and like in all relationships, there needs to be a right match. To foster better mentorship connections, interviewees encouraged trainees to be more open to interactions, develop a better understanding of the needs and expectations in the relationship, and attend networking activities outside of the lab.

Q4: What is the importance of mentors in science?

Mentors are essential in science, especially because research is very different from how science is taught in the classroom setting. Dr. Alicia Fisch, a recent PhD graduate from the Department, pointed out that many students go into research without knowing how to troubleshoot an assay or generate a testable hypothesis. Naturally, students rely on mentors who can teach them how to test a hypothesis, convey results to an audience, and develop critical thinking skills.

Importantly, mentors can also offer guidance in solving psychological struggles, which may stem from research or other aspects of life. Dr. Chan discussed how his mentors have helped him: “[Mentors are] absolutely indispensable. Mentors have repeatedly dragged me out of the hells of my own creation. There were so much I could not see past (in terms of experimental impasses and setbacks) or alternatives to which I was blind. Mentors offered consolidation, resolutions, and solutions.”

Current faculty member in the Department, Dr. Arthur Mortha, commented on the importance of mentors: “Mentors challenged me, had me test my boundaries … and corrected my path whenever necessary”. Even as a Principal Investigator, Dr. Mortha receives guidance from more experienced colleagues around him. Colleagues “provide advice and feedback to questions of: how to best be a mentor, how to establish a lab, how to deal with problems in the lab, or how to make a project proposal more competitive for a grant competition.”

Conclusions

This series of interviews makes it clear that mentorship is essential in science. Fortunately, our Immunology Department has already made progress in fostering better mentorship experiences through initiatives like the Mentorship Program. For this program, incoming students are paired with voluntary upper year students, who act as a potential first point-of-contact for questions and concerns. From here, students can use the opportunity as a stepping-stone to push themselves to meet new people and ultimately, new mentors. And maybe next year, they can come full circle, becoming even better mentors for the next generation of students.

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Julia Lin

Julia is a PhD candidate in the Department of Immunology under the supervision of Dr. Slava Epelman. She completed her undergraduate degree in the Immunology Specialist program at the University of Toronto. Her current research involves investigating the role of immune cells in cardiac disease.
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