|Mentoring for Mutual Benefit: A Profile on 2018 Mentor Award Winner Leanne Redman|
Redman, having experienced both an authoritarian task-master and an easy-going supportive coach in her own training, takes a holistic approach to mentoring by blending both styles. She strives to be honest and forthright with her mentees. Having hard conversations with them is part of the job of a mentor. Sometimes a mentee may struggle to become an effective researcher but could be much more fulfilled by transitioning beyond the bench and contributing their skills to other careers in science. For Redman, being an effective mentor is much more than developing scientific and research skills of your mentees; you also need to be a career coach.
Redman takes a very strategic, business like approach to postdoctoral training and career development. She has regular, weekly meetings with each of her postdocs (currently four) where their productivity is assessed and realistic goals set for the week ahead. In preparing for these meetings, Redman tries to put herself in her postdocs’ shoes when mentoring them, asking herself what she would do if she were them. As everyone works at different paces and has their own unique set of strengths and weaknesses, the important thing to come out of these weekly meetings is for each postdoc to set goals for themselves that are challenging, but manageable.
Redman strives to guide her postdocs in self-realization. “I ask what excites them academically,” she said, “What do they want to be their contribution to science and society?” From these big-picture questions, she gets a better idea of how to provide that constant voice of motivation and support. For example, one of Redman’s first postdocs (who also recommended Redman for the award), Anne Gilmore, PhD, wanted to pursue a research career in cancer, an area Redman knew little about. Nevertheless, Redman helped Gilmore map out a strategic plan to obtain preliminary data and training in this area, encouraged her to apply for and receive pilot/feasibility funds, and facilitated collaborations with oncologists at Louisiana State University. This helped Gilmore establish her own, independent line of research in clinical oncology and metabolism. Gilmore is now on the faculty at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, where Redman is faculty. Redman hopes to serve as a mentor on Gilmore’s cancer-focused K01 award.
One piece of advice Redman gives her postdocs as they seek to establish independence is to not be shy and put themselves out there. When it comes to establishing collaborations or developing new skills and research techniques, email researchers at other institutions who might be able to help and arrange to meet them in person at scientific meetings. Today, a postdoc looking to transition to independence needs to show initiative and also be strategic. They should think about who the key people they need in their corner are, whether as collaborators or mentors. Sometimes this means a postdoc needs to seek additional mentors to get the full support (scientific and career-related) they need. Importantly, Redman advises that, to be successful in science, they need to be a “doer” and this mindset should start in their postdoc.
Being open to feedback from mentees gave Redman the opportunity to grow as a mentor and leader. In each postdoc’s annual review with Redman, her mentees not only go over their productivity and accomplishments but also are asked to give feedback to her on how she can improve or adjust her mentoring. Out of these reviews, Redman launched the Academic Development Program. This group, open to other postdocs at Pennington, offers an open and collegial environment for postdocs to further their training by developing broad, academically-relevant skills. For instance, the group offers mock NIH study sections, and manuscript and grant review forums, in addition to allowing postdocs to present and discuss their current work. As a testament to the popularity and value of this program, 50 percent of Pennington’s postdocs have attended the meetings. Importantly, Redman has set the overall tone of this group to be supportive and not a “hot seat” for the postdocs in attendance. She sees the group as a place for postdocs to receive constructive feedback on their current projects and ideas. Through this program, Redman is helping postdocs at her institution develop the skills they need to be successful, independent researchers.
Mentoring does not end when postdocs become independent, however. According to Redman, the ultimate payback for the work one puts into being a mentor is to not only watch former mentees become successful but also to experience “reverse mentoring” from them. For example, Redman’s former mentor at Pennington, Eric Ravussin, PhD, now comes to her for advice on technical matters and grants and continues to learn from attending the academic development program meetings Redman initiated. In the end, mentoring is often circular – a positive feedback loop – where a mentor’s work, if done well, results in the development of new, independent researchers contributing to the advancement of the scientific enterprise for all.
Christopher Smith, PhD, is a postdoctoral trainee in the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. He serves as Junior Co-Chair of the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association.