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My mentors changed the trajectory of my life

My mentors changed the trajectory of my life

Jackie Howells (@jackiehowells1 ) is a PhD Student in pathobiology at Brown University. Here, she talks about how fantastic mentorship along her academic journey has impacted her goals and values both academically as well as ethically and personally. This story was originally published on June 25, 2017, on Jackie’s blog (available here) and has been republished here with permission.

Starting out

Looking back on my very short career so far in science I have realized that above all, one key to success is mentorship. This is especially true as a woman in science, as we truly do stand on the shoulders of the female scientists that came before us and shattered glass ceilings that made our careers a possibility instead of a distant dream. I have been extraordinarily lucky to have fantastic mentorship throughout my studies and lab work which has also translated into my non-professional life. Because of this, I am sharing this story to thank all of my mentors over the years, to describe what I believe has been the most helpful to me, and finally to define the ways in which I can take this amazing mentorship forward.

The first, clearly defined mentor I had was Dr. Erica Bree Rosenblum at U.C. Berkeley. I could not have asked for a more enthusiastic, caring, and skilled mentor. At the time, I was looking for a lab in which I could conduct my senior thesis. I knew I was interested in ecology, but never had any real research experience, except for my own small field projects in biology classes. I scoured the ecology lab websites at Berkeley and was immediately fascinated by her research on rapid evolution of lizards at White Sands National Park. I emailed her asking if she had time to meet to discuss her research further as I was looking for something to write my thesis on.

Bree quickly responded and we set up a meeting time. Perhaps this is also where luck came in for me as a young hoping-to-be scientist. Not everyone you email to chat about their work will have the time to write back. But in this case, Bree was a new faculty and I happened to be the first undergraduate to reach out to her. After interviewing over Skype with her graduate students, I was invited to do field research in White Sands and given an NSF (National Science Foundation) REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) grant for my thesis research.

Bree responding to my e-mail completely changed the trajectory of my life. The main reason was that someone I admire greatly and aspired to be like believed in me, which in turn made me believe in myself. Belief in myself gave me the confidence to explore and express my scientific ideas and theories which is what is truly at the root of being a scientist.

Life coach by proxy

In the Rosenblum lab, I worked directly for Dr. Simone Des Roches, who at the time was the graduate student I worked for. She became a second mentor and now, life-long friend. From Simone I learned that a mentor extends beyond an academic teacher. Simone taught me how to conduct research and also showed me the inner workings and relationships within academia. More importantly, she showed me how to survive the pressures of pursuing a career in science by prioritizing relationships and hobbies along with work. It's very easy to idealize the mantra of working hard and sacrificing everything else. But in the long run, this never leads to a happy life even though it might lead to more fulfilling and clear-eyed research.

My next mentor who embodied a balanced lifestyle was Dr. Hilary Thomas at the University of California, San Francisco in Dr. Jeff Bluestone's Lab. She headed a Type 1 Diabetes clinical trial and hired me as a research assistant. Hilary became a clinical principal investigator, managed our research projects, and had a lovely family to boot.  She showed me how, with the correct prioritization and mastering of workflow efficiency, it is possible for a researcher to have a fulfilled balanced life.

She helped me through my mistakes by showing me that sometimes taking breaks can actually improve efficiency and quality of work when I got stuck on certain assays (which is something I still struggle with but I am getting better at learning when I need to take a break).

Passion, respect, and belief in your work

During my time in Dr. Bluestone's lab, I developed several mentor-mentee relationships with other post-docs, medical fellows, and specialists; all of whom showed me the value of believing that your work will actually make the world a better place. When you are surrounded by experienced people who believe in their work and have an emotional connection and drive to succeed in order to help others, you learn that a genuine desire to help others drives the greatest research and provides the energy required to do thorough and impactful research.

This aspect of mentorship is the most important and inspiring to me as a young  scientist, starting out my own independent research. I truly feel that if you believe the findings from your research will help others and this becomes the main driver of your work, then, like my mentors, you will be able to carry on even through the most disenchanting parts of scientific studies. Observing the passion and drive of my mentors, I have realized that I share that same enthusiasm and devotion to helping others. 

A thank you

Each and every one of my mentors has greatly impacted my goals and values both academically and scientifically, as well as ethically and personally. I believe that the mentor-mentee relationships are one of the most important and precious relationships that any young ambitious person can have. I thank all of my mentors for teaching me invaluable lessons and believing in me, and I hope that one day I can pay it forward to other young scientists.

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