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  • 2009 Fall/Winter Paths of Progress

    Inside the dynamics of a mentor-mentee relationship
    Interviews by Cindy Hutter

    Editor's note: This is an online-only supplement to the "Focus on Mentoring" photo essay that appears in the Fall-Winter 2009 issue of Paths of Progress.

    What does it take to be a good mentor? Ask David Nathan, MD, Dana-Farber president emeritus, and he'll tell you, first, it takes being interested in the mentee and his or her work. Second, you need to have an enthusiasm for teaching. Third, you need to realize that the most important contribution that you actually make to science is not the research you do, but the people you train.

    "It's important to understand early on that you're trying to make a person be more successful than you are," explains Nathan. "You need to have that serious goal. This may mean taking your name off papers that you'd like to be on. It may mean making sure that your mentee delivers a presentation that you might like to make. It means pushing your mentee ahead of yourself. In the end, you'll be better off, because you'll be encouraging a continued influx of excellent individuals who want to work with you."

    We recently sat down with several mentor-mentee pairs at Dana-Farber to learn about what it takes to build these relationships, establish loyalty, and support mutual growth.

    Jane Weeks, MD, and Deborah Schrag, MD, on 'Building a Relationship'

    Jane Weeks, MD, (left) mentored Deborah Schrag, MD 

    "You can't mentor someone you don't like," says Weeks. "It's an amazingly intimate relationship. You can only be a good mentor if you get motivated by their success. You spend an inordinate amount of time together. If they are annoying, you'll ignore them. It takes chemistry."

    "It's qualitatively different form a teacher-student relationship," says Schrag. "It's much more like parenting, because good mentoring requires being vested in someone's professional success. Since professional success is affected by things going on in one's personal life, a mentor gets involved with that as well. You can't just keep it about the work."

    "We have enough of a deep relationship to know that, if I write one bad paper, Jane isn't going to think I'm a complete idiot," Schrag says. "Our relationship is deeper than that."

    "No matter what she does for the rest of her life, I will think she walks on water," says Weeks. "How great is it to have people in your life who feel that way about you and you feel about them."

    "When these relationships work, they really are a lifelong source of ego-boosting," adds Schrag. "When you have a really good mentor, you probably don't need a therapist."

    Edward J. Benz Jr., MD, and Shu-Ching Huang, PhD, on 'Establishing Loyalty'

    Edward J. Benz, MD, (right) who mentors Shu-Ching Huang, PhD 

    "Ed never makes you feel as if you have to make something succeed if it doesn't work, because a lot of times experiments don't work," Huang says. "He is very supportive and very smart. He can connect the small parts to something that could take me a whole week to think out, and he does it quickly. It makes you want to be like him."

    "Shu has, for almost a quarter century, been far more loyal and supportive to me then I deserve," Benz says. "Some of it is personal, some of it is related to the project we are working on. I don't think Shu will rest until we have solved all of the questions we have set out to answer over the last quarter century."

    "Ed told me, 'You are ready to take this on,' and he gave me the freedom to work," says Huang. "It takes a lot to catch up to Ed Benz, but I'm passing on to my postdocs and technicians the way he taught and trained me. I'm so grateful to have worked with him for so long and so closely."

    Lewis Silverman, MD, and Lynda Vrooman, MD on 'Sharing Opportunities'

    Lynda Vrooman, MD, (left) is mentored by Lewis Siverman, MD 

    "What I try to do as a mentor is emulate what my mentor, [Dr.] Stephen Sallan, did for me," says Silverman. "He invests a lot of energy into the success of his mentees, and he's very generous with the opportunities and credit he gives."

    "That is exactly was Lewis does as well," interjects Vrooman. "An opportunity arrives and he shares it."

    "It's not just, 'Here's a project; I want you to do the work,'" says Silverman. "It's 'Here's a great project that I think is important, it will help move the field forward, there is a lot to be learned from it, and it will help your career. I will make sure it helps your career.'"

    "We try to consider what a particular project means for the future, for moving ahead. It's forward–thinking," says Vrooman.

    "Childhood cancer is relatively rare," says Silverman. "Clinical research in our field is almost always a collaborative effort. One person can't get it done alone. When it's done right, mentoring is also a collaborative effort between mentor and mentee, and a good mentorship relationship feels especially 'right' in our field, where collaboration is necessary and celebrated."

    Jane Weeks, MD, and Deborah Schrag, MD, on 'Creating a Protégé'

    Jane Weeks, MD, (left) mentored Deborah Schrag, MD 

    "Jane didn't try to make me be just like her," says Schrag. "She recognized that I have different strengths and weakness. Part of the art of mentorship is letting your mentee take some risks. Let them climb a tree that is too high and fall and get bruised, but don't let them cross the street at a red light."

    "You need to try to help your mentee learn when to say yes and when to say no," says Weeks. "We're teaching people how to construct a successful career – deciding what invitations to accept, when to collaborate, and when to push out on their own."

    "Jane taught me a deep set of values: support for colleagues, academic integrity, and quality versus quantity of papers," says Schrag. "These values are like oxygen that I use everyday."

    "She has now mentored other people, and I like to watch what they do and how they carry themselves," says Weeks. "I can pick those people out, because there is some lineage back to me."

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