Who mentors whom?
This brief write-up describes my personal take on the mentor–mentee relationship as I have lived it while a professor at Berkeley. Ultimately, it is just a shout out to those who passed through my lab and shared with me their early scientific experiences.
If you are reading this essay right now, you are likely a scientist. You are probably young (if not, let’s say you are young at heart), and you may think that reading it will provide you with some new knowledge or some kind of wisdom. Uhm? Just make sure your expectations are not set too high, then continue reading if you may.
We choose scientific research as a career for many different reasons. Some want to change the world, some are curious, some like the day-to-day of lab work, the details, the technical journey. Could it be the wanting for truth, building up on logic and evidence? Or the urge to contribute to our collective definition of the ever-changing limits of knowledge? Likely most of the above. I am not sure why I decided to make a living as a scientist. It seemed the way to go at the time, to continue being a learner, for ever and ever. What I know is that I have loved every minute of being a scientist in this country.
I came to the United States as a postdoc. My CV was so short, you would have just finished reading it. And still, I was given a chance. It was not an “abstract” chance. My chance had a name and a place. The name was Ken Downing, the place was the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Early 1990s, I won the lottery. I joke at venues when I sit with students and postdocs who ask me about my scientific trajectory that I would never have had a chance at getting a postdoc in my own lab, just like I never would have had a chance at getting admitted to a Berkeley graduate program. Funny that those whom now I should be advising are already so much more successful that I ever was at their age! Sweet irony.
But I digress. I just wanted to say that, as a scientist in the United States, I love how our system appreciates and rewards independence, originality, youth. But I particularly love the lack of hierarchy, and that my students and postdocs call me Eva, or “boss” as a joke. That they will not necessarily do what I ask them to do. That they challenge me and make me doubt, keeping me constantly on my toes. Who is the mentor and who the mentee? I have learned so much over the years from the members of my lab. I feel I have been luckier than anyone could deserve by being surrounded by those young, hungry, and incredibly capable minds. So, while I may no longer remember clearly why I became a scientist, I do know why I feel excited about coming to work every day, facing technical challenges, competitors, publication woes, and the stress of keeping it all going. It is those precious minutes, while I sit with my students and postdocs in my office, at their computers, by their benches. When, together, we try to explain the experiment, the apparent contradictions, or nature as we are fighting to see it. It is the struggles and it is the triumphs in the process. Sharing it all with them, some days with a better mood than others (Figure 1).
This write-up is supposed to be about leadership and “my” success at mentoring new scientific careers. I claim a very small part in the success of the many who have worked in my lab over the years and now have built up their own labs and moved on to their own journeys as successful scientists. I had the fortune of having, for some mysterious reason, attracted them to come and stay with me for a while. I can claim to have been able to stay out of their way enough for them to grow and succeed, to have shared the dark moments, which we remember especially well when they ultimately led to new light. And hopefully, although I feel it is never enough, to have celebrated with them our contributions to our scientific community, but especially to have celebrated their perseverance and their talent.
Now, which other career can offer you a constant flow of coworkers who are smart, driven, knowledgeable, fearless? Who are willing to listen to you, but also to question you back and allow your own constant growth? Who are willing to share with you, for a while, a life of discovery or at least its relentless pursuit? And then, when they branch out and spread their wings, you can still rejoice in their scientific success and be so proud to have known them. I love to claim these young scientists as somehow mine, if they let me!
I know I am a scientist and should not get lost in feelings and emotions and rather stick to a matter-of-fact analysis. Allow me this once, just for relief, to be this silly and sentimental (I am being called “senior” so let’s say I am having a moment). There is so much time for facts and controls, for statistics, confirmations, and agreement with previously published and complementary data. Today, I am not going to try to convince you that I know how to be a good mentor, and list do’s and don’ts that I do not really know. I simply want to be thankful, and to let those who shared their critical scientific years with me at Berkeley know that I look forward to continuing rubbing shoulders with them in the swirl of science.
Dear reader, I told you to keep your expectations of wisdom low. This is my only advice: it is time to go back to the bench, to the microscope, to the computer. Get back to your students, get back to your mentor. Enjoy the journey, and write your own essay.