Secrets of successful research mentoring revealed by Duke mentors and their mentees

Emilia Chiscop-Head, PhD
About 100 Duke faculty and staff researchers attended the May research town hall organized by the Duke Office of Scientific Integrity on “The Role of Mentoring in Managing Research Team Communication”. Four mentees and their mentors shared lessons learned from their research mentoring relationships.

The Mentee’s perspective

Communicating goals and roles clearly and up front

Megan Madonna, PhD, Research Scientist & Assistant Director of Education at the Duke Center for Global Women's Health Technologies said that having shared goals within her mentoring relationship with Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam, Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Director of Duke Center for Global Women's Health Technologies, makes a big difference for her, as it helps see the big picture and have a sense of belonging. Setting clear goals and intentions is also important for Katherine Ramos, PhD, Assistant Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, who came to the town hall with her mentor Francis Joseph Keefe, PhD, Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Dr. Ramos, who has been at Duke for more than three years now, added “having the place for true reflection of why we are doing this in the first place and its ability to foster that in me is incredible”. She enthusiastically said that the foundation of her mentoring relationship - “genuine and authentic respect” and “constant and open communication” fosters a “really rich and exciting research environment”. She grew knowing Dr. Keefe was invested in her success and wellbeing without expecting that she become a replica of her mentor. Clear expectations for roles and goals as well as respectful, open communication, is also top-rated by Dr. Jennifer Rymer, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, mentored at Duke by Tracy Wang, MD, Professor of Medicine. She said, “when any project starts, she [Dr. Wang] communicates the roles from the very beginning. I think having this up-front communication is critical because there are not going to be hurt feelings that you are doing less or more than you hoped”. A recent Duke Medical School graduate, Dr. Brooke Evans, echoes the opinions about the importance of setting expectations by her mentor, Dr. Ian Welsby, Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care. Dr. Evans recalled that Dr. Welsby set up a yearly plan in her research year, which included projects she needed to complete and conferences where she would present her work.

Encouraging mentees to go out of their comfort zone

“Nimmi’s ability to challenge me, by encouraging to seek places where I wouldn’t normally go, to get used with being uncomfortable” – is another major benefit of having a good mentor, Dr. Madonna said. “Comfort with the unknown is fundamental for research given the essence of discovery which happens when something new evolves as a result of not getting something done as you anticipated.”, explains Dr. Ramanujam. On the same theme, Dr. Rymer recalled that Dr. Wang would push her to take the lead on projects and present at national conferences or pursue research grant, saying “there were times when I was encouraged to take on challenges for which I thought I was not ready”.

Building a portfolio of mentors

Dr. Ramos appreciates her mentor’s advice to seek other mentors too, within or outside the department. “Frank is modeling how to pursue a team science approach, because we do not work in silos or on our own”, Dr. Ramos said. This advice was important for Jennifer Rymer as well, who is mentored by Dr. Tracy Wang. “She encouraged me to build a portfolio of individuals who will mentor me and from whom I am going to learn”, Rymer added. She recalled times when Dr. Wang would tell her imperatively “you need to meet this person whose interest overlaps with what you're interested in a little bit more than I do”. Looking back, she thinks that her mentor “pushed her to develop external relationships and grow them” and she sees this very valuable in the context of her academic career.

Good mentoring shapes careers

All mentees invited on the panel recognized the impact of their mentors on their careers. “Specifically, my mentorship from Tracy was probably the reason why I'm a cardiologist now and probably the reason why I'm an interventional cardiologist”, Dr. Rymer said about the role that Tracy Wang played in her professional life. When she started residency at Duke in 2011, her clinical and research interests were dramatically different. “From the very beginning, Tracy understood what my background was, what I hope to get out of the research experience during residency and what I had the bandwidth to do. And [she] helped to really develop me over a period of time”, she added. In terms of important skills that she learned from her mentor, writing and communication skills are at the top of the list. Constant feedback and direct communication also played a key role in the process of learning and growth. “There was flexibility and a tone of communication”, Brooke Evans recalled about her mentoring relationship with Dr. Welsby which “really affected me and my trajectory. I really loved the process of research and I also fell in love with what we were researching.”

The mentor’s perspective

Autonomy and trust

For Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam, autonomy and trust are at the foundation of a good mentoring. She said, “it is very important for me that in our lab, the students and staff are deeply involved with making decisions about who to recruit based on shared values, with the shared goal that the selected person will add to the lab dynamic in a positive way. It's very important for that to come from the trainees themselves rather than a top down approach. Autonomy is important for productivity and it takes a bit of trust. In the long run, people with strong opinions raise to the top”. In her view, trust, respect, and open communication are the key ingredients for fostering a healthy power dynamic, which is essential for good research team management where research disagreements are resolved respectfully.

Openness and communication

Dr. Francis Keefe sees mentoring as a learning experience for both mentor and mentee. “My goal is to interact with mentees more as a colleague than seeing them as beginning learners”, he said. Keefe has been at Duke since 1978 and his career has been “about being mentored and mentoring others, including staff.” One of the things he has seen over time is how “mentoring of staff can really advance their careers, by even going on to graduate schools.” If he were to summarize his mentoring technique in a sentence, Dr. Keefe would paraphrase a lesson learned from sport, saying, “imagine you're on a bicycle, at the bottom of a 20 mile climb. You think ‘how am I ever going to get to the top of the mountain that seems such an unrealistic peak. I was in that position a few years ago when I did a tour with Tour de France. And a former rider said, ‘you shift early and you shift often’”. The mantra for mentoring then is “communicate early and communicate often”, Keefe said. This is essential in managing team disagreements as well. He is advising mentors to “embrace the difficulties talking about them early and often rather than sweeping them under the rug”. In his view, disagreements are healthy; and, “discussions around how to address the differences in opinions are incredibly rich and actually enhance the quality of the research.” As a chief editor the scholarly journal, PAIN, Dr. Keefe knows that 85% of research disagreements are around authorship and “90% of those disagreements come from not talking about them”. Therefore, embracing the conversation with an open mind and respect are important. Similarly, Dr. Welsby recognized that communications and patience are both important for the process of mentoring, as well as accepting that “disappointments and hurdles” are part of the process.

Have a 10-year view

For Dr. Wang, the ability to take a long term view of the mentees growth is key for successful mentoring. Having the 10 year view in mind, she says, helps the mentor to adapt and be effective. “The mentor mentee relationship really can't be static and needs to evolve over time; your needs from each other are different. As time goes on, the dynamic changes quite a bit - they're [mentees] going to be independent and I'm going to be a collaborator with them, but I won't be senior on them”, Wang says.

Advice from mentee to mentee

When asked what advice would you give to junior researchers interested in building good mentoring relationships, Dr. Ramos replied, “invest in your mentors as well and take the time to know their story. I enjoyed getting to know how Frank grew up and why he is interested in the work that he does, and how he got in the place where he is in his life”. Dr. Rymer thinks that it is very important that mentees trust that the mentor “understand where you're at and they're watching you grow”, she said. She added that keeping a log of active projects that you work on with your main mentor or other collaborators is important. “This keeps you honest about your progression on various things and shows where you should be moving faster”, she said. Dr. Francis Keefe encourages all mentees to “get input from other mentors and other people inside or outside the program. In my work I am constantly reaching out to people and asking their input and advice; the act of collaboration sends a message of how important it is to appreciate the value of a team science approach. Most of the cutting edge grants that are funded now involve a team science approach.” Keefe added.

Dr. Rymer encourages mentees to consider their careers as a whole when making decisions. “Tracy always asked me to look beyond the paper that's coming by the end of the year, but by what I hope to be in 10 years from now, 20 years from now, who do I want to be. You do not want to be the person that's just edging for the next thing. As far as integrity and reputation go, these are critical points”, Rymer said.

We would like to thank our panelists:

Mentor Nimmi Ramanujam, PhD, Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Director of Duke Center for Global Women's Health Technologies, and her mentee Megan Madonna, PhD, Research Scientist & Assistant Director of Education, Duke Center for Global Women's Health Technologies

Mentor Francis Joseph Keefe, PhD, Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and his mentee Katherine Ramos, PhD, Assistant Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences;

Mentor Tracy Wang, MD, Professor of Medicine, and her mentee Jennifer Rymer, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine

Mentor Ian James Welsby, MD, Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care, Co-Director Cardiothoracic Surgical ICU, and his mentee Brooke Evans, 4th year student, Duke School of Medicine

Moderator Geeta Swamy, MD, Associate Vice President for Research and Vice Dean for Scientific Integrity