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Mentoring Matters: Celebrating Our 2019 Excellence in Mentoring Award Winners

Published on
Jan 23, 2020
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2019 recipients of the Excellence in Mentoring Trainees Award

Alongside being prolific scientists and remarkable researchers, Elaine Zackai, MD, and Michael Marks, PhD, are the 2019 recipients of our Excellence in Mentoring Trainees Award.

Mentoring is central to our success at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. The passing along of wisdom, knowledge, tips and tricks (and most importantly, enthusiasm!) means that we can keep driving breakthroughs, think critically, and forge new paths of discovery in children’s health. 

Meet Elaine Zackai, MD, and Michael Marks, PhD. As a professor of Pediatrics and director of Clinical Genetics at CHOP, Dr. Zackai treats patients with rare and complex, often-unknown genetic disorders, with her research seeking to provide answers for questions that come up in clinical situations. As professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, Dr. Marks studies the molecular mechanisms underlying cell type-specific lysosome-related organelles such as pigment cell melanosomes and platelet dense granules, and how genetic diseases influence these processes. 

Alongside being prolific scientists and remarkable researchers, Drs. Zackai and Marks are the 2019 recipients of our Excellence in Mentoring Trainees Award. The award recognizes faculty members who effectively guide the training and professional development of postdocs and research fellows. In this Q&A post, we sat down with them to learn more about their perspectives on mentoring and why they believe it is so important in pediatric research.  

What got you involved in mentoring research trainees? 

Dr. Marks: When you accept a faculty position or an equivalent principal investigator position at a research institute, you automatically sign up for mentoring trainees — trainees are, for the most part, the ones who do the work of research. One can either choose to exploit them and use them as technicians, or dive into mentoring to help them to get to where they want to be. I chose the latter.

Can you describe what it’s like working with research trainees?

Dr. Zackai: In my 47 years at CHOP, I have always worked with trainees, and when I go to solve a problem or see a patient, they’re with me and we — it’s a big “We” — approach it together. They learn what to pay attention to, how to pay attention to detail, and gain experience by being in my sphere, so to speak, as I go about solving the problem of patient. There really is no other way to do things, I think, than to involve them right at the bedside, right at the frontline asking the appropriate questions, pursuing the literature. And then, if we have questions we don’t have an answer to, how do we go about finding those answers? 

What is your favorite part about mentoring research trainees? 

Dr. Marks: That’s a good question. In my experience, most trainees start off floundering a bit, and/or need a lot of direction to achieve their research goals. Oftentimes, new recruits do not quite understand the amount of effort needed to get the work done — and I am not one to chain them to the bench. So although I can make suggestions, they kind of have to learn that for themselves. My favorite part is when they get it: It’s like a switch that goes off, and they go, “Aha, this is what I have to do to succeed.” I’ve seen that switch in most of my best students and post-docs — except a few who came already well trained and knew what they had to do from the get-go. It’s really great to see that switch go off. Oh, and of course, it’s great when they complete a beautiful piece of work, and great when they get the next job that they really want.

Dr. Zackai: I am very enthusiastic, and I enjoy passing that enthusiasm on to [mentees] and seeing it mirrored in them. I won an inaugural award from the American Society of Human Genetics as a mentor, and they depicted me on a T-shirt, with “I was trained by Elaine” on the back, and the front is me holding my hands out palms up saying, “We’re having a moment.” “We’re having a moment” means we’re stepping back, we see something somebody else hasn’t seen, and we’re going to pursue that and figure it out. It’s passing on the enthusiasm, and them coming to me and saying, “I’m having a moment I want to tell you about.”  

Why is mentoring so important at a research institution like CHOP?

Dr. Zackai: Because research has to go on. We can’t just stop with me. We have to pass it down. And year by year, there’s a fresh new crop, and they have to pass it down as well. Nothing is static. The momentum has to keep going.

Dr. Marks: Good mentoring is important for any research endeavor. As I mentioned, we rely on trainees to do the work of research; if trainees do not feel valued and do not feel like they are moving forward, they will not be effective. Moreover, people get old — I am going to retire someday — and so it’s really important to train the next generation of scientists to replace us. To do that properly, one has to take the time and mentor each one in the way that they need to acquire the necessary skills and CV.

As an excellent mentor, can you offer any pieces of advice to research trainees? 

Dr. Marks: It’s funny; we had a panel discussion about this a few months back, and none of us really had one single piece of advice other than, “Hang in there!” I would say: 

  1. Be a sponge. Try to learn as much as you can while you’re a trainee; everything you learn will help you in the next phase of your career.
  2. Take as many opportunities as you can to speak publicly and to write, as these are skills that you will need to have well developed no matter what you do after your training — particularly writing, which is not emphasized enough
  3. Make sure that you and your mentor are on the same page regarding what you want to accomplish with your training, and if you cannot get to the same page, think about other options. 
  4. Enjoy being a trainee. The best part of my career was when I was a postdoc and didn’t have to worry about anything other than my research, and I would’ve enjoyed being a graduate student more if I didn’t worry so much about graduating!

Dr. Zackai: Never be afraid to ask a question. Never be afraid to pursue an idea. If you can’t get the answer from the people who surround you, then we’ve got to go elsewhere. We used to say, you have a dialing finger, now it’s a finger that texts; we’ve changed the technique, but the idea is, you find the person who knows the most about what you’re interested in, and you pursue it. I have to give a lot of credit to the people who mentored me, and I learned by example from them. So, hopefully the people who I’m mentoring will mentor other people, and it just keeps on going.