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The Impact of Mentorship

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Dr. Connaughton stands with students in the Zebrafish Ecotoxicology, Neuropharmacology and Vision Lab.

When we sat down to write an article for Catalyst, the two of us searched for meaningful parallels in our vastly different lives. We continually returned to interactions we’ve had with our advisor, Dr. Victoria Connaughton, who runs AU’s Zebrafish Ecotoxicology, Neuropharmacology & Vision Lab (ZENV). Dr. C’s mentorship has had a critical impact on the trajectory of our academic and personal lives during our time at American University. We sat down to talk with Dr. C about the importance of mentorship, and how to foster our own future mentor/mentee relationships.

You have been a successful neurobiologist for more than twenty years and have dedicated much of that time to the success of your students. How do you define mentorship? Who are your mentors?

To me, a mentor is someone who is willing to take the time to help or train another person so they are able to succeed. Often this is a professional relationship, where the mentor trains/ guides someone as they develop skills relevant to a career. I consider my doctoral advisor and one of my postdoc advisors to be my mentors.

Knowing how often we lean on you, it’s obvious that mentorship is a considerable investment of time and energy. Is it worth it? What sort of benefits do you see?

It is definitely worth it! One benefit that I see repeatedly is growth in the students. When students enter the lab, they often have little research experience; some only have experience through laboratory courses. However, by working in the lab and interacting with others who are there, I can really see their personal growth. They gain confidence in their abilities. Graduate students often become so comfortable and confident that they become mentors themselves by recruiting and training undergraduate students to help with their research.

The role of mentors is a difficult one, you are tasked with supporting the goals and aspirations of your mentees, but also ensuring they develop the skills required for career advancement. How do you find a balance?

The dialogue is important. To have a successful mentoring relationship, it is important to communicate and to be willing to listen and take the time to have those conversations. Why do they want to obtain research experience? What are their plans and goals?

How important are mentors in the scientific field?

Very important. In science, there are pedigrees of an individual’s research training, which can be significant. Much of what is taught/learned in science is done by doing and by interacting with advisors and mentors. The relationship between mentor and mentee is key in that training. Although the mentor-mentee relationship is primarily characterized by a focus on academic and career support, a personal relationship is a common aspect of a successful relationship.

Do you think helping your mentees balance their personal and professional life is an important part of your mentor role?

Mentoring often does start out with a focus on professional training. However, as communication between mentor and mentee continues and is maintained (for months or years), other topics are discussed. Everyone has a personal and a professional life, and balancing those different aspects is very important because they are linked. If something is not going well in your personal life, it affects your professional life. Consequently, it is natural for a mentormentee relationship to include discussions of non-career components. How the balance between personal and professional life occurs can vary from person to person, and mentors can provide guidance, share their experiences, or be a sounding board for different ideas.

During our time as your students, Cassie has become Melissa’s mentor, and Melissa has taken on her own mentee, Angelo. Do you have advice for developing a relationship with mentees?

Finding a mentor can be deliberate – you can ask someone to mentor you – or it can just develop over time, like when the mentor-mentee relationship develops between an advisor and his/her student. To be a mentor, I suggest thinking about the strong relationships you have (such as an existing mentor-mentee relationship) and what characteristics of that relationship are important to you and successful? What characteristics are less successful? To me, having a good mentoring relationship requires (1) interest and investment in training the person and in developing the dynamic and dialog, (2) willingness to take the time and be available for training, and (3) an ability to listen and be thoughtful and honest in your responses.