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Giving back: making yourself invaluable as a mentor in science

Perspectives from the Lab and FieldI couldn’t believe it. Here I was, a first-year graduate student, sitting face-to-face with the late Dr. Robert (Bob) Paine, one of the world’s most influential ecologists. Well, as much as Skype lets one sit face-to-face, but still, I was talking to a scientist whose research findings had become a fundamental concept taught throughout universities across the globe. I had to keep figuratively pinching myself during the whole conversation, as I was simply amazed at the awesomeness of the moment. Thus began my understanding of one of the most crucial lessons I’ve received in grad school.

The scientific community exists in a duality. We are constantly competing against each other for limited funding, positions, and more. There is story after story of grants not being awarded, new graduates competing against a hundred other applicants for a single position with a government agency, and scientists giving up their dreams and moving to careers outside their desired field. One would think that with such competitiveness needed to survive the trials of a scientific career that scientists would become lone wolves, afraid to share the dwindling resources with others. Yet, there is a strong sense of collegiality between members of this community.

Many scientists have learned that by sharing their resources with each other that the community will grow benefiting the collective whole. Members of the community provide assistance with research projects by sharing ideas, equipment, and personnel. They are the first to organize celebrations for passing one’s defense, obtaining tenure, and getting a new job. The community has developed tremendous support networks, constantly lifting each other to higher levels. Scientists further in their careers reach back to those just beginning theirs, assisting their scientific journeys by providing learning opportunities and advice.

Mentoring the next generation of scientists is one of the greatest honors and solemn responsibilities for those of us in the scientific community. Teaching young colleagues the skills they need to be successful scientists, helping to build their confidence so they can overcome the dreaded imposter syndrome, and showing them how to navigate the confusing maze that is a scientific career, are all necessary measures to help them fulfill their potential. Like clay on the turntable a caring scientist can help turn these unsculpted young colleagues into fine works of art.

Seeing a young colleague mature as a scientist gives both parties a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Not only does the community now have a scientist ready to help add to the collective, but also the older scientist is granted with a multi-layered sense of pride. Pride in their mentee achieving their goals. Pride in knowing you had the skills to assist someone. Pride in bettering the scientific community. One can’t help but smile with this sense of pride knowing that those you have invested time in have become more than what they were.

Young scientists of all ages appreciate the mentoring and care of older scientists. To be shown that one is worth investing in can be a transcendent point in one’s science journey. It is a moment I see every time my graduate school colleagues and I walked to into the classrooms of our BioBuds program. This program, inspired by Dr. Jane Goodall’s Root & Shoots program, is designed to teach children about the environment around them and instill a love and respect for science. Watching a 3rd-grader’s face light up when we show up with a new science adventure makes for a marvelous experience for those of us volunteering. I have no doubt the same look the elementary students have on their faces was the same look I had on my face staring at the live video feed with Dr. Paine.

I think that’s what brought the Dr. Paine to the Skype session with my ecosystems ecology class. Creating a sense of wonder in a student’s eyes. Not only a wonder in the science he had to share, but a wonder in the feeling that we were important enough to warrant attention. I believe Dr. Paine had a strong desire to give back to the next generation of scientists, to help inspire them and shape them into scientists that our community can be proud of. It certainly wasn’t his need to flaunt his groundbreaking keystone species concept. I found it to be quite the juxtaposition to have to quell his imposter syndrome as he was clearly nervous in our lead up conversations, worried my fellow students would judge him on his research from a half-century ago. Here, a scientist of his caliber, worried that he might not be good enough or interesting enough, overcame his fear and realized that he still had something to give by mentoring the next generation.

It was that experience of interacting with Dr. Paine that had me recently sitting once again in front of a computer, but this time instead of facing the senior scientist, I was the one facing a classroom of students on Skype. Even though I was only a few years ahead of them in school, Dr. Paine had taught me that we all needed to give back, no matter where we are in our careers or how prominent our science is. Like Dr. Paine, I found the experience to quite enjoyable and rewarding. I now look forward to the next opportunity to share my knowledge with my junior colleagues and to let them know that they are important enough to be worth the investment of time. In the days that followed, I couldn’t help but smile, as I watched them take the lessons I had taught them and put them into use. I know every time I have the privilege of mentoring junior colleagues, I am honoring Dr. Paine and the legacy of community and mentoring he left behind. It is a tremendous legacy; one that I encourage all of you to participate in as we continue to grow and better our scientific community.

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