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Training the Next Generation of Scientists: Malene Hansen, Recipient of the 2017 Mentor Award
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Irina Tiper


Steve Johnson,Vice-President of University Services at Garnett-Powers & Associates, Inc. presents the NPA Garnett-Powers & Associates, Inc. Mentor Award to Malene Hansen, PhD.

The fading affect bias is a psychological phenomenon that describes positive memories fading slower than negative ones. In my experience, I found that I hold on to positive memories tighter than to negative ones, cherishing them and recalling them often just to never forget them. I found that this effect applies to my memories of individuals. I remember the inspiring individuals who came into my life, even if I met them in passing. Malene Hansen, PhD, is one such individual. The recipient of the 2017 NPA Garnett-Powers & Associates, Inc. Mentor Award, she exemplifies a mentor whom you will remember for years.


Hansen is a professor in the Development, Aging, and Regeneration Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP), a non-profit research institute in San Diego, CA. She joined SBP in 2007 and, since then, has had many responsibilities in addition to her research. Hansen studies how modulation of the cellular recycling process called autophagy affects longevity. Outside of the laboratory, she is the associate dean of student affairs and the faculty advisor of postdoctoral training. She has mentored within and outside of SBP, participating in event organization among different institutes and universities. Recently she facilitated a new grant writing workshop, which included lectures on the development of a research question and a mock study section. It is clear that Hansen puts her heart into training the next generation of scientists. “Science is done by people,” she says, firmly believing that individual success is the driving force behind scientific advancement.


Hansen fosters positive mentoring relationships by staying flexible and being receptive to feedback. She takes the time to listen to her new hires and works through an individual development plan (IDP) with them, to make sure she can support the person not only while they are in her lab, but also in their future endeavors. She helped the SBP Office of Education, Training, and International Services develop the institute’s IDP. Hansen suggested the inclusion of an extra section within the IDP that allows trainees to give feedback for the mentor. Using this feedback, Hansen can tweak her mentoring style to meet each individual’s needs.


Hansen takes on different roles with each trainee, but she also demonstrates adaptability with her research group. For example, if there is a conflict in the lab, she may choose to approach a single individual within her group and not inform the lab, especially in the case of sensitive issues. On making difficult decisions for research teams, she says, “Sometimes you have to make decisions they aren’t going to like.” Often conflicts and issues are inevitable in team settings, but Hansen maintains a positive environment by encouraging her lab members to cultivate a common scientific drive as well as social relationships. She recently purchased a ping pong table for her lab and participates in friendly games with her lab members.


How does Hansen create such a positive environment? It all begins during interviews with potential lab members. She asks new hires if they would put their project on pause to help another member. After all, collaboration is a means of achieving a common goal. “Taking one for the team” is how Hansen describes the desire to advance the lab’s research by working together. After hiring, Hansen provides new employees with a handbook describing the “procedures” of the lab. For example, she describes her open door policy (which is most of the time): A semi-closed door means that she is working on a grant, but will take the time to answer important questions, and a closed door simply means that there is confidential information being discussed. She ensures a seamless transition by helping her trainees adjust to a new environment. Hansen helps new lab members develop projects so that they don’t feel like they are competing with the person working next to them.


In all her mentoring relationships, Hansen believes that the relationship will be mutually beneficial if both the mentor and the mentee are honest. The mentor’s efficacy hinges on their ability and willingness to dedicate the time to their mentee and be honest with their input. The mentee needs to be willing to push for their ideas, be honest about their goals, and demonstrate their drive to accomplish their goals. Hansen takes on a stepwise approach in her mentorship. First, she directs the new person as they are learning new techniques. She later coaches them and supports them as they develop their independence. Finally, based on the trust in the relationship, she delegates to the person so they can grow and thrive as an independent researcher.


Since joining SBP, Hansen has taken on an increasing number of responsibilities, and she is finding that she has less and less time. However, she takes the time to understand each trainee and help them on their path to success. Why? Because she genuinely cares about seeing people succeed in science, and she finds it incredibly rewarding to help people move on into future careers they would like to pursue. She can still be found in the lab, performing experiments. She is writing grants, developing courses, and running a successful research lab. And yet, she finds the time to be a part of positive memories.


Irina V. Tiper, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and an associate editor for The POSTDOCket.


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