Being a student is special. The best students are full of life and energy, eager to grasp new concepts and not afraid of stumbling on the way to a fuller understanding. The most important thing to do as a mentor is keep this spirit alive and continue to cultivate it organically. That is why I like to treat my lab as a startup run by students. They’re running the show, making decisions, and free to take the enterprise in whichever direction they think is best. I may be the scientific advisory board and, of course, the venture capital as well, but at the end of the day, my students have control. I believe ensuring that my students feel in charge of their projects helps to continue their personal growth and allows them to seize opportunities later on in their career.
I was lucky enough during my Ph.D. and postdoc training to have two impactful and generous mentors who set me on a great trajectory. They were both quite hands-off and gave me a lot of freedom to explore. Today, I try to emulate their mentorship style: to give reasonable, clear directions and to be there when my students need me, but not to micromanage anything. My style is empowerment, which I believe can be quite effective in transforming young researchers into curious and confident scientists.
One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my career is mentoring Akanksha Verma, Ph.D., a former Ph.D. student of mine, who now works as a computational biologist at Volastra, a company I co-founded.
When she joined my lab, like many new graduate students, she was still feeling out her career path and her growth as a scientist. She was a bit reserved and still adjusting to an environment where there are more questions than answers.
But I had so much confidence in her, and I let her know that. I was there to voice an opinion, give my support, or talk through a solution, but gave her nearly free reign to design and pursue her experiments. I also strongly encouraged her to seek out feedback from others – not just her lab mates but also other professors at the university. I truly believe that getting as much diverse feedback as possible is a determinant for success.
Perhaps this approach wouldn’t work for everyone, but Akanksha soon flourished. I saw her confidence and independence grow. By the end of her Ph.D., she was readily leading projects and advising other students. It’s been wonderful to watch her become a mentor herself.
Akanksha has a tremendous career ahead of her and I feel privileged to have played a part in her development and hope I can continue to foster her growth and that of others, whether they are in my lab or elsewhere.
–By Olivier Elemento, Ph.D., Director of the Englander Institute for Precision Medicine.