No doubt about it, there’s an art to building an effective mentor-mentee relationship. Seeking out a good mentor for your career growth and actively engaging as a “mentee” are integral to initiating a connection.
Since this process is so important to the development of life scientists’ careers, I’ve decided to make this two posts and interview different faculty here at our Institute.
My first interview is with Lynn Schriml, PhD, an Assistant Professor, Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and a scientist in the Bioinformatics Department at the Institute for Genome Sciences.
Lynn graduated as a Biology major in 1989 from Wells College (Aurora, New York), an all female undergraduate college and then received her doctorate in 1997 from the University of Ottawa.
When you talk with Lynn, it’s immediately apparent that her career development has been positively affected through the cultivation of effective mentors in a process she describes as “‘organic”’ rather than finding mentors through formal programs.
“When I was a Postdoc at NIH, they had a structured, mandated mentoring program,” she explains. “Your PI would schedule ‘mentoring meetings’ and they had a ‘formulaic’ feel to it. Their intention was good, but the process didn’t work to have relationships ‘forced’.”
As she progressed with her post-doctorate work and attended workshops in specific scientific specialty areas, she found opportunities to get targeted career advice and to build long-lasting relationships with key scientists.
“One presenter at Cold Spring Harbor spoke about the growth of bioinformatics research and about where the field was evolving,” she said. Lynn was curious about the emerging field of bioinformatics and approached him with a few related questions. Over the years, she regularly sought and received good career advice from colleagues. Hallway discussions on research ideas, conferences to attend and new directions for grant proposals have fostered ongoing career development.
Another mentor relationship grew out of her participation in the OBO Foundry and meeting a colleague in the ontology space. Lynn admired this particular scientist’s style – how he organized projects, how he interacted with other scientists, and found that he was open to periodically giving her helpful advice about managing her academic career.
“I’ve gotten great advice from various mentors about specific issues – how to write a good grant, how to develop a good story about your research and how important that story is to your continued success. Mentors can affect you generally, too, and their style can influence your style.”
Lynn’s most successful mentoring relationships happened because she sought out particular scientists and knew a little about their work.
“You can’t be passive about developing mentors or it just won’t happen,” she explained. “It isn’t necessary to be aggressive, but you have to approach the scientists you admire or who are doing research that interests you.”
Expending the energy and being open to seeking out the help you need at each point in your career is critical to ongoing growth, synergizing of ideas, and fostering the collaborative relationships that are integral to a science career.
For Lynn, her mentor relationships have happened “organically” rather than through more formal steps. In general, she has found that approaching specific scientists who were further in their careers with very specific career questions to be an effective strategy.
“There are many people (colleagues, PIs, collaborators at external institutions) who are generous with their time and take a genuine interest in you as a person. These mentors have been invaluable to my growth, and, in fact, they’ve helped me become a better mentor to my students.”