For the 15th year in a row, Nature is recognizing excellence in mentorship with the Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science. The award focuses on a different country or region each year: last year highlighted mentors in the Southern United States, and this year will award those in the Republic of India. Read below for an interview with one of last year's award recipients, or click here to nominate an outstanding mentor you know.
Anita H. Corbett is a professor of biology at Emory University, and one of last year’s mid-career recipients of the Nature Award for Mentoring in Science. In a recent Q&A with The Source, she reflected on the impact that good mentors have had throughout her career, the qualities that make a good mentor, and how receiving the award last year gave her the ‘street cred’ she needed to shape mentoring programs at her university. The interview has been edited for length.
Did you have any notable mentors at the start of your career?
As with most successful scientists, I have had the good fortune to benefit from many important mentors in the course of my career. One of my first scientific mentors was my chemistry teacher in high school, Mrs. Broadway who also sponsored our Science Bowl Team. Mrs. Broadway saw my potential as a chemist and challenged me during AP chemistry.
As an undergraduate student, my mentor Dr. Roger Rowlett was one of two biochemists at Colgate University. He challenged me to push my research farther and eventually my work served as the basis for a Journal of Biological Chemistry publication where my initial observations earned me authorship. Roger not only pushed me to excel, he expected me to excel. Ultimately, I was driven to meet and exceed his expectations.
My graduate school mentor, Dr. Neil Osheroff, provided an outstanding example as a scientist and mentor that I strive to emulate to this day. I developed my skills in scientific writing and editing through hours spent one-on-one with Neil as we laboriously wrote each sentence of each manuscript (and I published a total of 14 papers in graduate school so that means there were many sentences and many hours). Neil’s attention to detail with respect to presentation, posters, and manuscripts passes through me to my own mentees every day.
As a post-doctoral fellow, I worked with Dr. Pamela Silver at Harvard. Pam helped to instill a sense of independence. She challenged me to be my own scientist and to believe in myself. I am grateful that she nominated me for the Burroughs Wellcome Career Award, which provided a strong starting point for my independent faculty position.
I hope that I have elements of all these amazing mentors in my own mentoring style and that I can live up to the examples they have set for me.
What’s the best piece of career or life advice you received as an early career researcher?
I think a very general point has been to pursue my passions and not be afraid to do what I want to do. This advice came from many mentors that encouraged me to never be afraid and never be limited by what I think I can do.
Specific advice that was very valuable in my faculty position, particularly my mental health, that I have really appreciated was to take time each day to focus on something positive that happened.
I took this suggestion and as I walk to my car every day, I try to focus on the most positive thing that happened that day. Sometimes this positive thing is a home run such as a fundable score on a grant or an accepted paper. Other days, it is something small like an e-mail from a student who thanks me for something or a positive interaction with a colleague. This small choice to focus on something positive reminds me to celebrate victories no matter how small and not focus too much on the negative. For me, many of these victories are achievements for my mentees.
How would you define your role in the lives of your mentees?
I would say that my role is provide my mentees with the tools and motivation to achieve their goals. The most challenging thing is to help mentees to determine how they define success. My role is to empower my mentees and push them out of their comfort zone. Likely, if I am doing my job, my mentees should be angry with me at some point during their training, otherwise I am likely not doing my job to push those individuals outside their comfort zone. Thus, my role in the life of my mentees is to be supportive, but not always to make their lives easy.
How can individuals best pursue mentoring relationships in their school and work environments?
This is really a two-part question: how do you develop as a mentor and how do you find useful mentors. Both of these points are important at all training and career stages because we need to mentor and be mentored at all stages of our career.
With respect to building skills in mentoring—there is a growing culture of formal training in mentoring with broad opportunities at individual institutions and beyond. My advice to an individual who is interested in growing their role in mentoring [is that they] should seek formal training and build networks through those training activities. You have to be proactive to seek opportunities for formal training in mentoring as well as identifying mentoring opportunities.
A graduate student in the lab who is interested in building mentoring skills can participate in an online training module and then reach out to their thesis mentor to ask if they can have the opportunity to serve as a mentor. A faculty member could participate in formal mentor training. For example, at Emory we have the Atlanta Society of Mentors (ASOM) which provides a series of workshops each fall. They could then seek input from other mentors to identify opportunities to participate in summer programs, mentor undergraduates, and recruit graduate students to their group.
To seek mentors, there are also formal opportunities including meet and greet events or speed-matching events, but I tend to think that mentoring relationships work best if they form organically. Again, one has to be proactive and opportunistic. When you encounter someone that has skills or qualities that would make them an important member of your mentoring team, ask them to serve in this role. Invite them for coffee and ask them to become part of your team. We all need multiple mentors so serving as a mentor with regard to a specific area or topic is not so onerous.
How has receiving the Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science impacted you? Have you started any new projects as a result of the additional resources?
Receiving the Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science has given me the opportunity to share my opinions on Mentoring broadly and to have an impact at my own institution. Essentially I have Mentoring ‘street cred.’ Due to the award, I have been engaged in institution-wide mentoring programs for new faculty. In addition, I have been invited to share my thoughts on mentoring with incoming faculty. The opportunity to contribute to the national conversation has been rewarding and has forced me to reflect on my own mentoring practices as well as the practices we have in place at my institution. I am fortunate to be at a university that values mentoring and has been a thought leader in leveraging resources to start and grow the Atlanta Society of Mentors.
Dr. Corbett donated her award money to a fund for graduate training at Emory with the goal of contributing to the graduate training enterprise at her university.