Mentoring Akanksha Verma

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.

Akanksha Verma, Ph.D.

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.

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The above article was reprinted with permission from Dr. Elemento and originally appeared on the Volastra  LinkedIn page