2003 PAESMEM Symposium

remarks by Maggie Werner-Washburne

May 7, 2004

Decatur House, Washington, DC

•  How do you know that your mentoring effort has made a difference? Use metrics (quantities or other measures) and outcomes in your response.

 

I have mentored approximately 50 students in my laboratory and many more at UNM and elsewhere over the past 15 years. As I look at the 3 PhD students who have finished, 2 are assistant professors, both have funded research programs and themselves are involved in mentoring, and the other is a manager of bioinformatics at Incyte. I have contact with all three of these students many times a year and they still write to ask me questions and for suggestions. My current PhD student (and there are three more coming in the fall!) is the first person in his family to finish high school and the first person in his town to go to graduate school. These characteristics are not unique among the students who have come to my laboratory. As I see Anthony and Pam and Ed and Matt develop into real scientists and mentors themselves, I am extremely proud to have had a part in their education. Each of my students was unique – most are minorities, and all of us became family. There are many other PhD students from other lab oratories that I have mentored and sometimes they contact me or, more frequently, I will hear something positive they have said about the help they have gotten. I think the time spent doing a PhD really allows the student time to understand how my philosophy of science, mentoring, and teaching fit together in an interesting life.

 

My M.S. students have gone on to PhD programs in bioengineering at the University of Washington , to work as researchers elsewhere, or to be a western regional sales manager for a large company. I have had MS students working in my lab oratory from biology, chemical and mechanical engineering, and computer sciences. I know I have succeeded with these students when they cannot only work easily with each other but can communicate across the great cultural divides that separate biology, engineering, and math.

 

My first post doctoral student, Dan Caprioglio, became a teacher at a small school in Colorado . He has done a huge amount of work to help students, including many minorities. Many other post doctoral students are also researchers. I wish that many of my post doctoral students had come to my lab oratory as graduate students. By the time students have reached this level, it is difficult to make up for deficiencies in their training. I have found that it is tougher to produce real changes at the post-doctoral level because the students often feel they are “done”.

 

My goals for all post-graduate students in my lab oratory are that they leave being able to think and write better than when they came. I want to develop “can do” attitudes that focus on what are the great questions and not j ust on what are the easy ones. I want my students to see what can be gained from working in a diverse environment both in terms of research background and in terms of race and ethnicity. Most of all, I want my students to be well on the road to being good communicators, scientists, and leaders.

 

I have had 45 undergraduates in my lab oratory, 34 of these were minorities. The undergraduates are probably the most difficult for me to reach – which might seem surprising – but undergraduates are so pulled between what they have to be doing in school and at home and they still usually don't have life experience or the time to grasp what a great life research is. With undergraduates, I often have to work with support staff from other programs – like our Minority Program in the College of Engineering or student services. Undergraduates, above all other groups of students I work with, still take a village to raise. I do hear from my undergraduates from time to time: one is the first Latina MD/PhD at the University of Colorado , one is a senior researcher at Promega in Madison , WI , one is a professor of Public Health at Yale, many are graduate students, community MDs, and some are still struggling to find out what they want to do. At least 10 will be going or have gone to graduate school and 6 have gone to medical school and, there should be 2 MD/PhDs out of the group. Undergraduates have been co-authors 12 times on 8 papers from my lab oratory.

 

I often say that the relationship between the professor and the students is the closest thing we have to a scientific clan system. In the tribes in NM, the clan system is strong and is a way to identify people with whom you share some relationship. You can have many clan parents and grandparents. In this analogy, graduate students are your children, post doctoral students are step children, and undergraduates are very close nieces and nephews (athough when you are working with them day to day- they are your children).

 

I use many dichos or sayings to help me on a daily basis to understand what are my successes in this area. These were taught to me by my grandmother, Concha, and my mother, Marta. Some of these dichos are: “man proposes and God disposes”; “you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink”; and “where there is a will, there is a way”. I depend on a good education, a love of science, a loving family, and miracles to get this job done.

 

While it is good to say that 50% of my students did this or 33% did that, I believe my success as a mentor is measured more in the hearts of my students and their passion for what they do – no matter what it is. I believe that my function as a mentor is to wake students up, to walk with them for a little while, and to be there when they need an elder to answer questions. How do I measure if I have made them fearless or able to hear what yeast cells or engineers are saying? What is the metric for changing the world? In the end, I believe that I work in my bucket of water and, when I drop a pebble in, I cannot see where the waves hit.

 

I think often of the Taoist saying, “Time is fleeting, learning is vast. No one knows the duration of one's life. Therefore, choose the swan's art of extracting milk from water, and devote thyself to the most precious path.” I have been very fortunate to have been well guided along my path with heart and it has been an honor to help others find theirs. I measure my success in the happiness of my students and in the goals of their children.

 

•  What can Federal agencies do [better] to instill mentoring throughout the infrastructure of the education continuum for all students?

 

First, let me say that many of my most important mentors have been at Federal Agencies. I don't know if this is true for all minority scientists, but I have found this to be true for me. I also don't know why this happened, but when I was starting my post doctoral research, NSF reached out to help me. The ability of individual people in Federal Agencies to provide guidance, support for students, and encouragement to try new things has been critical to my development as a mentor and as a scientist. I owe a great deal of thanks to people both at NSF and NIH for my success and my students' successes.

 

Maryanna Henkart at NSF was one of the first people to go beyond the call of duty to help me out when I was just starting. I know that people were paying attention to my first proposal at NIH, because my post doctoral advisor wrote a competing proposal on the same topic. Both of our proposals went to the same study section at NIH and immediately after that study section, I heard that people were trying to help me. Phil Harriman, who was at the NIH review, called from NSF to talk about my work. Because I had changed areas of research after my PhD, my MS and PhD advisors could not help me. I felt totally alone, but people from NSF let me know that they thought I could succeed and that it was important to the scientific enterprise that I do succeed. Soon after getting my first grant, I applied and was awarded a Presidential Young Investigator award. Each of these awards helped me immensely to do what I had come to New Mexico for – good science in a multi-cultural environment and work towards diversifying biological research.

 

Developing a network of minority scientists was also important for me – and Federal agencies helped with that, too. When I was a new assistant professor, NSF supported an American Society for Cell Biology-sponsored meeting at Airlie House on Minorities in Cell Biology. That meeting, introductions by program officers, and opportunities through SACNAS, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in the Sciences, helped me meet almost all the minority scientists I know. Through these connections, I was able to develop a community of peers that has helped me through my whole career.

 

Support from Federal agencies also allowed me to move into new areas of research. A few years ago, Maryanna Henkart asked me to run the Microbial Genetics program at NSF. In that capacity, she and Mary Clutter gave meincredible opportunities that helped me, on many levels, to move from molecular genetics to genomics. But I could see from the perspective of an agency office, that too often the role of a program officer feels like pushing rope. You can design the programs and give out the money, but it is the researchers in the field who translate that into good science and change in the scientific community. Often the money doesn't go far enough to give those researchers who have special talents or opportunities for mentoring the support they need.

 

So, my suggestion for Federal Agencies: 1) Identify and reward good mentors. Create more opportunities for program officers to identify, meet, and work with those people who have a good scientific background and are interested in being good mentors. The programs and program officers need flexibility and support to to enable them to make significant impacts on training and mentoring the future scientific workforce through supplements and other initiatives. Reward good science and success in mentoring, not j ust politics.

2) Make sure diversity in large programs starts at the top and the beginning. Ensure that the people who are running large programs understand that real diversity starts at the top of their administrative structure and when the program is j ust beginning. Don't keep rewarding programs that cannot find a way to bring in excellent women and minorities into the planning process and be inclusive at the top of their administrative structure. Students need places to flourish. For students, the notion that everyone is welcome has to be part of the infrastructure. Like many minority scientists today, my greatest support in most working environments usually comes from the secretaries, the j anitors, and other workers. I remember one time, talking to the late Frank Duckapoo, a Hopi geneticist who was called in to review from time to time. He said what was very frustrating was to always be brought in after the decisions are made. The scientific enterprise will not change if people are rewarded for bringing in minorities only after the pie has been divided and the direction set. All of my scientific career, I have been searching for the words that would resonate in the minds of those people who have the power to change things. I still don't have those words, but I have the proof in my students and my research that diversity does lead to brilliant and novel work.

 

Finally, it is critical for Congress and the Administration to realize that morale in Federal agencies is extremely important to all of us in science and education. The US is amazingly successful in educating scientists but less successful in training and empowering mentors. To grow more mentors, the government needs to find ways to allow those people who interface with the scientific community (the mentors in the Federal government) to do the best job they can do. Successful mentoring leads to teams. Actions that disrupt teams: like outsourcing of important federal staff positions or government, non-scientific interference in peer review, makes these j obs more difficult and will have the effect of decreasing the capabilities of mentors at every level. Actions within Federal agencies that build teams, allow participants to have a say in how the work of the group is done, and improve interactions between program officers and scientists stimulate mentoring. Where the buck stops, real mentoring can start. In fact, every Federal employee, every faculty member, and every student should have on their desk a sign that says, “Mentoring starts here.”