“What made you want to be a Scientist?”
This question always takes me aback. I have been in science so long it’s hard to pinpoint that exact moment where I went from not-a-scientist to the path I’m on now. I was always good at science… but that didn’t make me want to pursue a career in it. After sitting on the question for some time, I realise there isn’t a what that made me want to pursue science, but rather, a who.
Travel back to 2014. My hair is long, my experience isn’t, I’m doing my undergraduate degree in biology, and I am lost. My studies killed my love for the subject. I had such a miserable time that I didn’t see myself staying in science at all. Monthly career fairs on the university lawn showcasing non-science-specific careers; “train for another three years to become an accountant!” - is this all my hard work and studying can give me? I felt lost, unsure as to where my degree could take me. In a bid to work out what I wanted to do, I secured a placement in a lab at University College London (UCL), researching the effects of diet on aging in fruit flies. I (in my naive mind) thought that all I needed was a taste of lab-work, and the answer to my uncertainties would magically reveal itself.
Without a shadow of a doubt, my placement at UCL changed the course of my career. However, this wasn’t because of the technical skills I gained or how good it looked on my CV. Rather, it was the guidance and mentorship I didn’t know I was missing. During my placement, I worked under a post-doc named Adam. He took the time to explain the area of science to me (on many occasions more than once). In the lab, he taught me techniques, and before long, I was proficient enough to collect data for his project. We had frequent discussions about the results and what it meant in the area of research, but most importantly, he gave me the confidence to speak freely and ask questions.
If I had to identify when my path shifted to the science-trajectory, I could pinpoint the exact moment; a conversation I had with Adam one day during my placement. Curious about our methodology, I asked, “How come we only use female flies in these experiments?” “Because the field assumes that males don’t respond in the same way,” he replied. I pondered on that for a bit, “Is there any evidence of this? Has anyone shown it?” “No, but you can be the first!” And that was the birth of My First Project . Prior to that placement, I had hardly been entrusted with a pipette, let alone an entire project. The independence empowered me in an indescribable way.
I spent the whole summer working on my project – discerning the differences between males and females in response to changes in diet. There was no feeling greater than having a tray full of vials labeled with my name. All experimental work I had done before that had been pre-arranged university practicals. I had never had anything with my name! Here I was, being trusted with a full tray!
The following weeks flew by and were the most enjoyable working days I had experienced. I caught the train to London every day with energy and enthusiasm. I would get to work setting up my experimental flies, doing dissections, imaging slides on expensive microscopes, and analysing my data. Adam and I would meet frequently. He would help me with my analysis and truly catapulted my love of programming and data visualisation with R (something I now use every day in my PhD). He would ask questions to challenge me, and we’d have thought-experiments over the implications of my results. After a couple of months, it looked like I had meaningful results!
But most importantly, I would often get praise and told I was doing a good job, not just from Adam but from many members of the lab. In the two years of my undergraduate up to that point, I was only told I wasn’t doing enough; this was a significantly positive experience for my confidence and mental health. Adam’s and the lab’s support also extended far beyond my project; we had many open conversations about my next steps and further education. It was Adam who not only suggested I pursue a Masters but also told me I’d be good at it.
Now, here I am, seven years later, in the final year of my PhD. I may be far away from flies, but I still experience the impact of Adam’s support. He enabled me to see my love and passion for science, to realise I actually have something to offer. At the time, I didn’t realise how much I needed a good mentor to provide inspiration, guidance, and support (both technical and mental).
As I reflect, I can identify the characteristics that I feel make a good mentor:
Patience: Those earlier in their career have less experience and need support.
Two-way Conversation: Exchanging what you both expect from the relationship and what you continually need.
Sharing Experience with openness & honesty to allow learning from one’s mistakes.
Giving Credit & Praise: We are all humans and thrive off encouragement.
Enthusiasm: It’s contagious!
Trust: A mentor is not a babysitter.
It is important to note that while some of these points are universal (I think every mentor should be a good communicator), some are specific to me. Others may require something else from mentorship. Some trainees require motivation, reality checks, etc. This is why honest and frequent conversation of your and your mentor’s needs and expectations is vital for the relationship to flourish.
During my later scientific career, I have been fortunate enough to mentor two lab-placement students, in addition to dozens of academic students, via my job as a tutor. I have utilised everything I learnt from Adam, and other great mentors, to give the best support and guidance I can. At the time of writing, both lab placement students have decided against pursuing lab-based careers, but this makes no difference to me. A successful mentorship doesn’t result in training the next you; from a successful mentorship emerges two people who feel they have grown and developed from the experience.
Don’t get caught thinking that it’s just lab supervisors or training directors who can take on this role. We all have the opportunity to be mentors. You may not think it – but there are those out there for whom your experience is exactly what they are missing.