As recipient of the 2018 Robert M. Nerem Education and Mentorship Medal from the ASME, I was asked to prepare an article to contribute my reflections on these topics that arise whenever we offer advice and guidance to our younger colleagues. This represents my personal views on Bob Nerem, after whom the award is named, my experiences that have impacted me as a mentor, and some words of advice, offered cautiously and with qualifications, with regard to best practices in mentoring.

Introduction

This is a paper of a different sort than normally appears in the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering. It initiates what the Editors and I hope will be a tradition of articles written by recipients of the Robert M. Nerem Education and Mentorship Medal. I was pleased, if a bit intimidated, by being the inaugural contributor, but in the end, found it to be a rewarding and satisfying experience. While each subsequent recipient will no doubt have their own interpretation of what is appropriate, I chose to follow a path that parallels my presentation at the 2018 World Congress of Biomechanics. I start with a section that describes what Bob has meant to me, including the traits of his that I so value and try to emulate. Next, a section describes some of my own personal experiences that helped to shape my thinking about the role of a mentor, as well as best practices. In the final sections, I discuss some of what I consider to be the most important responsibilities of a mentor, and what we need to consider as we attempt to set an example for our mentees and guide them down a path of success.

Bob Nerem, a Mentoring Role Model

It seems appropriate, as the first recipient of the Nerem Medal, to begin this paper by recognizing the individual after whom the award is named, and to write briefly about his characteristics as a mentor, an educator, and a friend, and how he has influenced so many throughout their careers. There is no award or recognition that could mean more to me than being the inaugural recipient of the Nerem Medal. After all, education and mentoring are two of the most important roles for those of us working in academia. In many respects, our success or failure as researchers and educators hinges on our ability to train our research students in how to progress through a successful project. The success of our academic “offspring” reflects back on ourselves and our lab environment. Bob Nerem epitomizes traits to strive for as educators and mentors.

Bob Nerem has long been my role model and sage advisor. I first met Bob shortly after he had joined the University of Houston as Department Chair, long before he wound up at Georgia Tech. He had invited me there to give a seminar during my early days on the MIT faculty and to explore the possibility of my joining him in Houston. By that time, Bob was already widely recognized for the key role he played in unraveling the interactions between vascular biology and cardiovascular fluid mechanics. These were the days when mechanobiology (though it was not called that at the time) came into existence, and the basic tools needed to study how cell biology could be regulated by fluid shear forces were just being developed. Bob was instrumental in this process. The uniquely high degree of collegiality found in this field owes much to Bob's efforts to foster it, as well as the example he set through all his personal and professional interactions.

Even in those early days, Bob was recognized not only for his fundamental research contributions, but also as a master-builder of programs in bioengineering. He later moved to Georgia Tech in 1987 to shape the bioengineering program there, establishing the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience. His vision, which soon after became a reality, was to build an institute which would bring the engineering and science communities together under the same roof as a means of removing barriers for collaboration—this was convergence in the truest sense, long before it became widely acknowledged. In building the program, Bob gave equal weight to research excellence, teaching abilities, and an open, collaborative attitude. The members he attracted to the Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience, and who eventually populated many of the life science departments at Georgia Tech, are ample evidence of his recruiting successes.

As I reflect on what makes Bob so successful as a mentor, one attribute keeps coming to mind. Bob is more effective than anyone I know in connecting with another individual on a personal level and immediately establishing a rapport that facilitates an open, collegial relationship. On meeting someone new (even a waiter in a restaurant!), Bob will ask their name, and oftentimes, strike up a conversation. He does this in a way that demonstrates a genuine interest in this person as an individual, and not just another anonymous face. Without intruding on their “personal space,” he always elicits a smile. This is a trait that comes naturally to Bob, but I have yet to master it. This is, in my view, a truly unique and valuable talent for those who can achieve it.

Bob has devoted much of his time and wisdom to mentoring others, providing an example to rising faculty on how best to succeed, not only in their careers, but in life in all its dimensions. Those who know Bob well have no doubt heard of his “Rules of Life.” But for many readers, this may be new. Bob generated this list over a period of many years. It gives some idea of how he has led his own life, and how he guides others toward success (see Box 1).

My Other Mentors

During my career, I had the benefit to learn not only from Bob, but also from some of the other leading figures of our profession. At MIT, Forbes Dewey and Ascher Shapiro were my first mentors, Forbes for my Master's degree and Ascher for my Doctorate. Between the two of them, I learned the excitement of research and discovery, but perhaps more importantly, I came to recognize how a mentor can have lasting impact on one's career, long after the direct interaction ceases. I also had many memorable discussions with others who taught me important lessons: YC (Bert) Fung (the founder and elder statesman of biomechanics), Tim Pedley (a leading figure in cardiovascular fluid mechanics who had a tremendous influence on me during my early years on the MIT faculty), and Shelly Weinbaum (who taught me how a new perspective even on an old problem can lead to important new insights and discoveries). Every generation has its leaders, and it is important for young researchers to seek them out and benefit from their insights and advice.

My Learning Experiences

This article is a personal perspective, but it is my hope that you, as readers, will find certain parts that resonate with your own experience, or at least provide useful food for thought. By no means do I feel that I am any more qualified than the next person to mentor, but having received this award, it seems right that I should pass on some of my experiences, as well as some useful information that I have derived from the literature. While this paper is based primarily on personal experience, I also have also drawn upon several references, most importantly, from a publication from the National Academies Press: Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering [2]. I found that this resonated with my own experience and consider it to be “required reading” for anyone starting an academic career. Another excellent source can be found at the NIH website on mentoring [3].

Early in my career, I learned an important lesson when I came to realize the limitations of engineering (or any single discipline alone) in a field such as bioengineering, which draws so much from the neighboring disciplines of molecular and cell biology, physiology, and medicine. There had been a time when, as a fluid dynamicist, one could “pick the low hanging fruit” by identifying an important medical problem, extract the interesting fluid mechanics questions, and gain new insights into a fundamental problem of physiology or disease. Enormous and important contributions had been made to various medical fields, notably orthopedics and vascular physiology, simply by applying rigorous quantitative analysis to the human body. But the limitations of a purely engineering approach soon became obvious, as I embarked on one of my first forays into a medical problem, glaucoma appeared to have a clear cause related to fluid mechanics. Glaucoma results from increased intraocular pressure as a consequence of increased resistance to the outflow of aqueous humor in the anterior segment of the eye that leads to damage of the optic nerve and progressive blindness. The connection to fluid mechanics seemed natural. It was evident to a naïve engineer that glaucoma was simply a plumbing problem; a bit of analysis and experimental modeling would yield brilliant new insights, and perhaps even a cure for the disease! After several years and some remarkable students, it became increasingly clear that biochemistry had a role to play, and later yet, that the biological response of the tissues to flow and stress was also critical. This along with numerous other “learning experiences,” led to a transition in the way I viewed myself and how I sought to guide my students. Rather than being a fluid dynamicist with interests in human physiology and disease, I became a bioengineer with fluid mechanics as one of the several disciplines I could bring to bear on problems I felt were important and interesting to me. Recognizing bioengineering as a quintessential example of convergence fundamentally changed the way in which I approach a problem, as well as my goals and methods in mentoring students.

Several years later, in the early 1990s, I found my work moving more in the direction of cell and molecular biology, a field in which I had no formal training. I was beginning to realize that cell culture work would be essential for me to advance my research into how airway epithelial cells respond to mechanical stimulus. I also felt that, if my lab was headed in this direction, I needed to gain some hands-on experience myself if I were to supervise students in related studies. While on sabbatical one year, I discussed this with a collaborator at the time, Jeffrey Drazen, then Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at the Brigham and Women's Hospital. Together, we devised a plan to conduct experiments entirely on our own. Jeff would do the surgery on rats to obtain tracheal epithelial cells and I would do the cell culture, subject the cells to stress, and observe their responses. Despite numerous setbacks, and near catastrophes (such as my discarding down the drain a vial containing cells that Jeff had just painstakingly extracted from a rat trachea!), we blundered through the experience, managing to get the study to a point that I felt confident in handing it off to a (much more competent) student. That work eventually blossomed into a collaboration involving Doug Lauffenburger (cell signaling) and Peter So (two-photon imaging) and a few highly talented students/postdocs. A publication resulted some years later [4]. The take-home message here is threefold: (1) one should not be overly hesitant to enter a new field, (2) peer mentors can be extremely useful, and (3) if one hopes to mentor students effectively, one's own basic knowledge and hands-on experience are essential.

The Responsibilities of a Mentor

The term “mentor” comes from Mentor in Greek mythology, the advisor to Odysseus, and while times have changed some since then (although some might argue that the challenges faced by Odysseus are no more daunting than those of finding an academic position!), the role of a mentor remains much the same—to impart advice and knowledge to those less experienced than yourself. The role of a mentor, in the broad sense intended here, is someone who takes a special interest in helping another person develops a successful professional career, with an appropriate balance between their professional and personal interests. Much has been written on mentoring. While I provide some references that I have found useful, what follows is a more personalized perspective, based on my own experiences over my years on the MIT faculty. I hope it will be helpful.

To start, it is important to recognize that mentoring is not a case of “one size fits all.” It is our responsibility to first identify the special needs of each student. It is also important to understand the different approaches one might use in providing direction to and motivating a student to attain their full potential. In some cases, it becomes clear early on that a particular mentee has all the right instincts combined with exceptional capabilities. The best we can do as a mentor is to provide an environment in which they can thrive. The caution here is not to be overly directive or attempt to impose one's own personal style, but keep watch for any ways in which they can improve. Also, it is important to provide ample opportunities for them to expand their perspective, meet leading figures in the field, and engage in the full spectrum of educational experiences.

Some students, however, come into your lab under-prepared, either academically or socially, or some might benefit from being directed to another profession or another career plan. In such cases, it pays to use an approach that helps the mentee make the best decisions for themselves. Our role as mentor is to raise questions that help them to better understand their own unique situation and to appreciate what alternative pathways might exist. Providing negative feedback is always a challenge, but both positive and negative input is essential in helping your mentees to make the right life decisions.

Mentoring in the Classroom

Aside from the students and postdocs in our labs, we also have a wider responsibility to mentor those with whom our only contact is in the classroom or an occasional meeting outside of class. I do not intend to dwell on the role of mentoring in teaching, but it does represent another important responsibility and opportunity. The only word of advice I might offer in this connection is to stress the importance of maintaining a fresh outlook on the material. Always strive to see what you present in class from the perspective of someone learning the subject for the first time. Probably my most successful teaching experience (for which I received the Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the only student initiated, Institute-wide award at MIT), was when I volunteered to teach a course that I had not previously taught and found that I had to re-learn the material alongside my students. It was a stressful, but extremely rewarding experience. It taught me the importance of never becoming isolated from your class. Do not forget the issues that are most difficult to comprehend for the first time. I also recall when Ascher Shapiro, my doctoral supervisor, first taught an undergraduate course in controls. He was close to retirement at the time and had just finished a ten-year stint as department head. I saw him struggle to fully grasp the concepts that he had never been taught, but then experience enormous satisfaction (and relief!) at the end of the term, both from the favorable response of the students, and from his own sense of accomplishment. This taught me the importance of always challenging oneself, not getting overly comfortable in the “scientific space” in which you live, and reminding me of the importance of seeing things from the perspective of my mentees.

Preparing a Mentee for Scientific Life

Mentoring is more than just being a friend, but having a good personal relationship with your mentee helps. I have found that it is best to listen first, then comment or provide feedback. And as the mentoring relationship matures, I find that the ratio of student input to my input progressively increases. If it does not, then that suggests to me that the student is not making good progress toward becoming an independent researcher, capable of both defining and executing their own ideas. Also, in the later stages, networking comes to the fore, since the student should be preparing for the next stage of their career. Helping the student make these connections, introducing them to visitors to the lab, including them in meetings with visitors, etc., are valuable ways in which a mentor can help the student effectively transition to independence.

One of the most important facts to keep in mind is that most of your mentees will be doing something totally different from their graduate coursework or research in 5–10 years. Recognizing this, it is absolutely essential that they learn how to learn, and understand that learning is a lifetime experience.

The Role of Collaboration and Cooperation

Some of my best experiences have been those in which a student has more than one mentor, so collaborations with other researchers, especially those with expertise complementary to that of your own lab, are key. And although these interactions can sometimes make it difficult to maintain focus, the added diversity of opinion they provide is well worth the effort.

Collaborations within the lab are also important. There have been cases when I met with a student, only to discover that they were working on the same problem, or a problem with significant overlap with that of another student in the lab. Even when encouraged to initiate a discussion with the other student, and the benefits of doing so spelled out, sometimes the student was reluctant. This may stem from a false impression that reaching a goal through collaboration somehow lessens the significance of their role in the process. While it is true that collaboration often means sharing the limelight with a fellow student, and can lead to difficult decisions about authorship when it comes time to publish, the benefits reaped by faster progress far outweigh the negatives. Within a lab, and even across labs, collaboration and not competition moves the field ahead more quickly. It is our responsibility as mentors to initiate discussions about collaboration and to emphasize its benefits.

In a larger lab, the more senior students or postdocs will often take on a mentoring role. This not only benefits the mentee, but also provides an opportunity for the senior individual to gain valuable experience in mentoring. The junior student gains from more hands-on support, often a tremendous benefit when just starting out. My own lab has grown from small to intermediate size, and now consists of about 15 members, ranging somewhat higher including undergraduates, visitors, or summer interns. Peer mentoring occurs naturally, as each student is generally happy to transfer their knowledge to a new lab member. Other than in the case of short-term visitors or undergraduates, I do not assign a direct mentor, but these evolve through relationships.

Even greater challenges arise when starting a second lab, which is increasingly common these days with globalization of nearly everything, including research. I had such an opportunity in Singapore, starting in 2010, as part of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology—SMART for short. There are many benefits and challenges to running a second lab, but it raises some unique mentoring issues. One often learns from one's mistakes, and in this instance, mine was in not recognizing the importance of being physically present for an extended period of time when starting the new lab; as good as videoconferencing has gotten, there is still no substitute for direct, personal interactions. Lab culture develops quickly, and the lab director needs to set the tone, which is best done by example and in person. My lab got past most of the initial problems that arose, but in retrospect, I felt that many could have been avoided simply by having been more present myself.

Managing Conflict

I doubt that there are any labs that can avoid conflict completely, and as a mentor and lab director, it is important to expect it and be prepared to deal with it. Conflict can arise from various factors, but not infrequently results from unhealthy competition among lab members. Certainly, encouraging a collaborative spirit in the lab will help. But when conflict does come, it is critical to deal with it immediately, and take actions that send a clear signal that it would not be tolerated. My natural tendency is to avoid conflict, and I have at times been slow to act and slow to get to the core of the problem. This can have lasting negative consequences, however, and should be avoided by reacting quickly, fairly, and decisively.

Maintaining Motivation

It is important helping your students to “step back” every now and then, so they do not get lost in the weeds. Periodically, a student should be asked to explain why their work is important, and how it all fits together. Doing so not only forces them to grasp or reinforce the importance of what they do, but has the added advantage of giving the mentor insight into whether or not the student is beginning to lose interest or motivation. In the extreme case, it might be necessary to ask the question: do you really want or need a higher degree?

Communication is Key

As your students and mentees progress through their career, their ability to communicate their thoughts, ideas, discoveries, and detailed findings will be critical to their success. Communication comes in many forms. Creating a compelling argument in support of your hypotheses is an essential skillset, in discussions with co-workers, advisors, and colleagues. This applies equally to those seeking an academic or industrial career. And for those looking to launch a start-up, the ability to effectively pitch your idea to a group of venture capitalists is paramount. Mentees need to understand that as an academic, presenting your work at a scientific meeting, writing technical papers, and discussing your research with colleagues are essential. Mentors should help mentees improve their writing and speaking skills, which can be time-consuming but well worth the effort.

One question that often comes up is “should I discuss my new, unpublished findings with people outside of the lab?” With very few exceptions, my answer is an unequivocal “yes.” While different mentors may have other views, my feeling has always been that one gains the most from a scientific discussion if a sense of mutual openness and trust can be established. BioRχiv1 fosters this openness and should set the tone for all of our interactions. In the end, much of our communication, and our lasting legacy of research, resides in the papers that we publish. As Rik Huiskes, the long-time editor of the Journal of Biomechanics, is attributed to saying: “Unpublished work does not exist.”

Finally, it is critical as a mentor to ensure open and frequent face-to-face communication with your mentees. Though not right for everyone, I have strived to maintain an open-door policy, encouraging my students to stop by at any time with any sort of question. If my door is closed, it is more often done by a student who might want to discuss a confidential matter, but I generally leave that to them to decide.

Mentoring to Match Your Own Career Goals

As a young faculty member, obtaining and publishing results in a timely manner, while always a high priority, is even more critical. As a more senior mentor, one finds that the need to quickly publish diminishes. However, one cannot overlook the need of one's mentees to bring their research to a point of publication. It is a key to ensure that the essential new ideas of a young investigator be published in a timely fashion in today's competitive environment. Regardless of the mentor's seniority, the goal should always be to generate publications that represent a significant new contribution to the literature, and that are fully developed and presented, yet remaining sensitive to the timing of the mentee's career plans and progression.

Growing and Nourishing a Diverse Lab

One of the key roles of a mentor and group leader is to instill in your mentees the importance of maintaining diversity, in every dimension, in the lab composition. As mentors, we must demonstrate through our actions that our profession benefits tremendously from it. It has been satisfying to see the increasing number of women, underrepresented minorities, and members of the LGBT community in bioengineering, and their obvious success at every level. Though not yet at the numbers we would like to see, the growth is obvious as we look around. Still, biases exist that sometimes prevent individual members of these groups from attaining their full potential, as documented recently in a New York Times article [5]. As mentors, we have the responsibility to reflect through our actions that all should have equal opportunity, and that each individual deserves the respect and treatment.

Ethical Conduct in Research and Publishing

With the ever-growing emphasis on publishing first-authored, “high impact” papers, pressures build, especially for those planning to enter an academic career. This often becomes a major focus and can sometimes obscure the more important reasons for publishing—such as describing an important finding to move the field forward. As a result, I have noticed an increasing trend over the years: the number of co-authors on a paper is growing, and there is a growing tendency for disagreements to erupt when decisions are made regarding co-author ordering. While it is one thing to follow good practices and discuss co-authorship well in advance [6], especially in a new collaboration, these discussions often seem premature, and can even give rise to problems later on as the focus of the paper shifts or the relative contributions of the different contributors wind up being different from first planned. There is no single solution to this, but it helps if the issue is raised periodically, and both the mentors and their mentees feel that whatever decision is finally made, it will be based on a reasonable set of guidelines understood and agreed to by everyone.

There is another dimension to ethics that is becoming increasingly important in our profession. Our lab has benefited from interactions with bioethicists through our work on multicellular engineered living systems. Recognizing that these living systems exhibit, either now or in the foreseeable future, many of the attributes of “life” (self-assembly, self-repair, ability to adapt to a changing environment, capability to gather and process information and take some action based on that stimulus) mandates that we address these real potentialities today. Also, we must make our students aware of the ethical questions that might arise. This is already happening as the NIH begins to apply some of the same restrictions on use of organoids derived from human-induced pluripotent stem cells. While it is certain that our ability to grow organs or other implanted systems with unique capabilities will continue to expand, important questions will continue to arise about broad access to and affordability of these new technologies. In our NSF-funded Science and Technology Center on Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems, we have become increasingly engaged with the bioethics community, and now regularly include an ethics component in our retreats, workshops, and other center activities. I have found this to be a natural way to raise questions in our lab meetings and through interactions with my mentees regarding all aspects of ethical conduct.

Summary

I hope that for those of you who reach this point, the read has been worthwhile. You now have my reflections on mentoring, which I hope convey some of the tremendous body of experience I have gained through my interactions with Bob Nerem. However, what works for one person does not necessarily work for the next, so it is always somewhat risky to offer advice. But I expect that my experiences are fairly representative of those we all face as we attempt to provide guidance to our lab members and junior colleagues, and that at least parts of this article will prove useful to you. If so, then I will claim success!

Box 1: 

Bob Nerem's Rules of Life [1]

  1. There are no such things as mistakes, only lessons, i.e., a series of learning experiences; growth is through a series of such experiences, a process which involves both successful and unsuccessful experiments.

  2. An unsuccessful experiment does not represent failure, it is just a learning experience; often one learns more from these than from successes; apply the lessons of today so as to make yourself a better person tomorrow.

  3. Always be open in the widest possible way to encountering a new person, to a new opportunity, as these represent new teachers, new learning experiences; “leave the screen door (to the outside world) unlatched,” you never know who or what will walk in.

  4. If you encounter a closed door, simply look for another door that might be open; life is filled with a lot of paths and doors to walk through, do not waste time on a door which is closed, let the “rock” in your path be a “stepping stone.”

  5. Your life is up to you; at birth you were provided a “canvas” onto which you have the opportunity to “paint your life”; take charge of your life and the “painting of this picture,” if you do not someone or something else will.

  6. People will remember not what you said, but only how you made them feel; strive to make a difference in the lives of others.

  7. Remember that the cup is always half full, never half empty, but remember that the only cards you can play are the ones that you were dealt.

  8. Look for the good in people, try to imagine the world as it seems to the other person.

  9. Never, never worry about something over which you have no control.

  10. Whatever happens, place the least dramatic interpretation on the event, the incident, and/or whatever is said.

  11. Never have expectations, only hopes, and welcome each and every new day for “each dawn is a new beginning”; each day presents new opportunities and as has been said, “a day spent without real enthusiasm, is an opportunity lost.”

  12. Love yourself, make peace with who you are and where you are at this moment in time, be willing to let go of the life that you had planned so as to have the life that waits you.

  13. Listen to your heart; if you cannot hear what it is saying in this noisy world, make time for yourself, enjoy your own company, let your mind wander among the stars.

  14. Do not let your preoccupation with reality stifle your imagination; if someday, why not now, even though the impossible may take a while.

  15. Finally, life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, worn out, shouting—holy cow, what a ride!

Box 2: 

Essential roles for a mentor:

  • setting an example in all actions,

  • helping to develop a focus and a network,

  • raising the important ethical issues in research and publication,

  • emphasizing the need for diversity and inclusion,

  • balancing personal and professional life,

  • adjusting to the needs of the mentee,

  • providing guidance in all forms of communication,

  • instilling the excitement of what we do, and

  • encouraging collaboration and demonstrating its benefits.

Footnotes

References

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