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Dr. Joseph  Lorenzo

Mentorship

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Probably no function that a scientist performs is more important than being a mentor for trainees. Science is taught primarily by apprenticeships rather than by classroom learning. Graduate students and post-doctoral fellows who are pursuing a career in basic science need hands-on training in the laboratory to master the techniques of modern science. They achieve this by working on a project under the close supervision of a mentor. Similarly, students who are developing an academic career in clinical research need to be in highly supervised environments where their activities can be observed and directed.

 

There are many elements to becoming a successful researcher. Probably foremost is the desire by the student to succeed. One needs “a fire in the belly” to do this job, which is a fundamental trait that can’t be taught. Part of a mentor’s job is to counsel trainees to have patience and perseverance when their career might not be progressing as rapidly as they would like. Scientific experiments often don’t work as planned. Clinical researchers continually battle with the problems of recruiting subjects and maintaining subject compliance with a study’s guidelines. Papers don’t always get a favorable review and grants don’t always get funded. Any one of these setbacks can be disheartening to a trainee with little experience in science. It is the job of a mentor to give perspective to these events as they inevitably befall a young scientist. Experiments can be revised, subjects contacted and encouraged to continue in a study and papers and grants can be rewritten and resubmitted.

 

Probably the most important role of a mentor is to teach students how to think like a scientist. Students need to learn how to frame scientific questions as well-defined and testable hypotheses. They also need to comprehend how to devise experiments or clinical studies in a way that gives relatively unambiguous answers. Both basic science experiments and clinical studies need proper controls that account for all the variables of an experimental plan. Trainees also need to appreciate the importance of appropriate statistical testing. Studies must be structured so that their outcome and conclusions are statistically sound. Finally, students have to appreciate the intricacies of any scientific technique. Experiments have limits regarding the ability their outcome to support a scientific hypothesis. This primarily results from the limits of our technologies and scientists must understand these limits.

 

Patience is a virtue in science, which is necessary because scientific questions often require many months or years to answer. It is sometimes difficult for trainees to understand that progress in science often moves slowly; sometimes glacially.

 

For mentors the rewards are very similar to that of parenting. Students progress and go on to independent careers. Trainees become mentors and science advances.

 

Joe Lorenzo

Farmington, CT, USA

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