Mentoring the next generation

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Gerrit Dou, “The Poulterer’s Shop”

My lab might be closing soon because of insufficient research productivity. Is it really because I supervised too many undergraduate students? And if so, should I regret it?

My group is in trouble because there’s not been enough research productivity. I’ve been a group leader for 7 years, I’ve been 100% self-funded the whole time, and in that period nobody has been in my group longer than about 9 months. I’m currently paid off a “golden handcuffs” grant that covers my whole salary but means I’m not allowed to apply for other sources of funding. And when I got awarded that grant three years ago, my request for an accompanying PhD stipend was rejected.

So I adapted. I started doing more teaching, and realised I loved it. No, not quite that. It was hard and it was difficult and it was a hell of a steep learning curve (especially the practical classes), but it felt meaningful. It felt important. I felt that I was giving something back.

And as I did more teaching, slowly getting the hang of it in an unfamiliar academic environment, suddenly there began a stream of enquiries for Bachelor and Master’s positions in the group. I had no postdocs, I had no PhDs, so I supervised them all myself.

More than that, I quickly realised that I wanted to supervise them all myself. All but one year of my postgraduate and postdoctoral time was spent in research institutes, and being directly supervised by my PhD mentor – who was himself very close to retirement at the time – was something that had made a big impression on me. I wanted to replicate the training experience that I had had. 

The only way to be sure that every student coming through the group acquired the information I thought was most important, learned not just how to use techniques but also understood them, and adhered to the same professional standards I applied to myself, was to look after the students personally. With this approach, I found that I could supervise a maximum of three students at a time.

Over these past seven years I’ve personally supervised 7 Master’s students, 7 Bachelor students, and 15 five-week rotation projects, nearly 30 undergraduates in all. Over 20 of those students were supervised in the last three years when I started teaching more. And I’ve gotten really, really good at supervising. Right now, we are putting the finishing touches to a research paper that has literally two soccer teams’-worth of authors, because it’s been painstakingly assembled by all of those students working in sequence.

But it’s not come quickly enough. I got word recently that my grant renewal application has been unsuccessful, and so the entire future of the group is uncertain. I don’t yet know why it wasn’t successful (the evaluations haven’t yet arrived) but it would be a surprise if my recent publication record wasn’t a factor. As ever, there are reasons but no excuses.

Such setbacks invite a degree of reflection. But from asking around, one common thread has emerged: my mistake, so it goes, has been that I have not spent enough time at the bench myself. By choosing to supervise undergraduates instead of cloistering myself away, I have lost time and productivity. 

There’s a grain of truth to this. Supervising all of the students has meant that my productivity has been roughly what it would have been if I was working alone at the bench, full-time. But when things are going well and the students are bedded in I have six hands and “I” am more productive than if I was working along with the two hands at the end of my arms. 

But of course it’s not possible to work full time at the bench anyway. There’s not just the teaching, there’s all the myriad other little bits and bobs that go with being a contributing and engaged and helpful member of a department. And would the department view me as an asset if I had refused to do all those things? I doubt it. But in seeking to be a good colleague and a good mentor, I have seemingly sabotaged my research career.

Setting aside questions of productivity though, it’s fun. Supervising undergraduates in the lab is really, really great fun. It’s fun communicating the basics, reassuring to realise that you too still understand them (there’s a selfish case for teaching and mentoring, after all), and an entertaining challenge trying to enthuse the students about the topic.

And it’s important too. The coronavirus pandemic has shown how integral science and technology is to contemporary society, and how important an informed and supportive public is.  We need people going out into the wider world knowing how science works, believing it’s important, and trusting its practitioners.

I’ve often heard group leaders in postdoc-rich environments complaining that we’re training too many PhDs. They’re wrong. If there’s a glut of PhDs on the academic job market then it means they’re being told that academia is the default route and other career options are not being highlighted clearly enough.

I’m also hearing more and more (often from colleagues in research-intensive environments) that the quality of incoming PhDs isn’t high enough. Research techniques are getting more sophisticated, and so more and more expert training is needed at an earlier stage. Undergraduates need to be involved as early as possible. They need to be exposed to frontline research early on, so that they gain relevant experience and inculcate the right standards.

There is value to making sure that undergraduates get high-quality training, not just in terms of research but to society at large. I could have been at a bench on my own these last few years, but I’m happier that I’ve sent out 30 students who know how science feels and how good science is done.

Yes, I’ve been dumb. I’m guilty of doing the job the way I think it should be done, instead of looking at how I was supposed to be doing it. It took time, apparently too much time, to learn how to do all this efficiently, and I made a lot of the usual new group leader mistakes along the way. I don’t think the choice between doing it alone or doing it with undergraduates was the problem. I think the main problem was not having even a single PhD student this whole time.

I don’t know if I could have done better with the hand I was given, and I’m happy with the way I played it. And I had a hell of a lot more fun interacting with all those young scientists than I would have done working alone every day of the week.

If this is the end, then it doesn’t feel like such a bad hill for my academic career to die on. I believe in the potential of young scientists, I believe they deserve the best possible introduction to bench science, I believe they benefit enormously from close interaction with experienced scientists, and I believe this is something I can do to make a difference. 

I’m not going to change my approach. Wish me luck.

5 thoughts on “Mentoring the next generation

  1. Dear Brooke,

    I am very sorry to hear about your current research difficulties. I hope you pull through them. TIR has been enormously useful for me, particularly in confirming by own understanding of how good science is done. Many of your articles have been passed on to students to help support their training. I agree with the sentiments expressed above, and have made the same “mistake” in caring about the training of the students that I have come into contact with.

    All the best,

    Douglas Griffith

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    1. Dear Douglas,
      Thank you very much for taking the time to write, and I’m delighted that the articles here have been useful to your students – always great to hear! Let’s hope everything works out (fingers crossed and thumbs pressed).

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  2. Curiouser and curiouser. I know that I have always enjoyed reading your posts, but I was unaware of this striking parallel in our career trajectories. I am getting older now, and it is entirely possible that I made some of these comments previously in this forum, so please forgive me if I start repeating myself. You see, I did shut down my lab after 10 years as a junior faculty member, for exactly the same reason you cited: lack of demonstrated research productivity. Or as I explained to our 16 yr old son recently, “If you are a PI in a medical school at a large North American research university, you will be judged on how efficiently you can convert research dollars into high-impact publications” and I could not keep my study section (grant panel) and my departmental chair person happy.
    I would like to pose a challenge for you (but please feel free to ignore or decline, besides you never need to reveal the results to a single soul, this is purely for your own edification): consider selecting a few of the students (include previous students as well) especially if you think you either taught them something valuable, or that you did a really top notch job when you taught them. For me, the four people I interrogated over the years were all grad students that I was either formally or informally mentoring, so mainly at the bench, in a wet lab. The question is this: “What is the most important thing I taught you?” Of course there is no single right answer to this, it is merely a survey. They may want some time to reflect, you know, internally, themselves. However, they may also have an answer ready at hand. No matter what they say, you will learn something new about yourself. The first two times I tried this I was in an exasperated mood, and I had a very clear pre-conceived idea about what they would say, what I wanted them to say; I was basically setting them up, like the straight man in a comedy skit, who sets up your joke for the punchline. The answer I was sure they would feed me was “Always make a restriction map of your plasmid first(!)” You see, at the end of my postdoc I already had a job offer but the new place wasn’t ready for me to show up too soon, and my own mentor was feeling a bit pinched (even though for the first 5 yrs of postdoc-dom I had competitive salary awards and had only cost him reagents and supplies) so the final year I was splitting my time with another worm lab on the campus, essentially prostituting myself and my advanced molecular cloning skills to a lab that used recombinant inbred lines to map polygenic traits. Like a psych lab studying worm behaviours. It seemed like nobody in that surrogate lab had ever learned this most important lesson of all, “Always make a restriction map of your plasmid first(!)” and I was venting about this to the folks back in my other lab.
    Needless to say, neither of those first two students realized where I was going with my not-so-innocent query. But they both took it seriously, and immediately, separately, unbidden, came up with the same answer.
    What I learned was that I did indeed have a positive impact on their scientific development, but I don’t think I would’ve guessed their answers in a thousand years, AND, I wouldn’t have realized what others found valuable in my practical teaching efforts if I hadn’t asked that question.
    I should probably disclose, similar to many in the scientific realm, that I am not always particularly self-ware at the best of times, and have been known to get totally absorbed in my own inner world, so your mileage may vary, but I hope that if you try this on, that you will get something back.
    I also hope that your career prospects improve. I grieved, largely silently, for a protracted period of time, after shutting down my lab, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Another very sombre event came about ten years later, when my first technician-cum-Masters student passed away in a freak accident at the age of 42. At her funeral, I was crying like a baby, as her peers eulogized her incredible life, and much to my amazement described what I had unknowingly created (and the lost), “The Perry Lab”.
    It’s definitely NOT been an A to B to C trajectory since PI-dom, but I have been very fortunate, and evolved my skill set into a sort a kind of second volume in my career as a scientist. I became a card-carrying bioinformatician, and worked on some of the biggest genomic consortiums in the world. At the moment I have a new gig focused on developing public health tools for pathogen genomics (who knew there would be so much demand for people who know how to analyze and move sequences around?!?).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marc,
      Thanks so much for sharing this and that’s a really interesting question to pose – I will have to see what the results from the survey are in my case. It’s also always good and heartening to hear that there are plenty of opportunities within the scientific ecosystem but outside the academic career ladder. Best wishes and thanks as always for reading commenting; much appreciated.

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