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September 10, 2021

Why science needs strong mentors

Nature | Julie Gould
Scientist mentors describe how supporting junior colleagues alongside many other responsibilities is a true labour of love.
Neta Erez, PhD, ICRF Project Grant Recipient and winner of a 2020 Nature Research Award for Mentoring in Science.

Neta Erez, PhD, ICRF Project Grant recipient and winner of a 2020 Nature Research Award for Mentoring in Science

How can science better support and reward academics who, alongside running labs, writing grants, authoring papers and teaching students, also devote precious hours of their working week to mentoring colleagues?

In the first episode of this seven-part Working Scientist podcast series, three winners of the 2020 Nature Research Awards for Mentoring in Science describe why this part of their role is so important and needs to be recognized more prominently.

“It was an award that I was recommended for by my former and current students and postdocs. So people that I was the mentor of submitted my candidacy for this award.”

Neta Erez, PhD
Tel Aviv University
ICRF Project Grant Recipient

“We all know that mentorship is important. And yet, we don’t seem to value it appropriately or recognize individuals who devote time and energy and passion to mentoring,” says Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief of Nature and leader of the annual awards.


Three award-winning mentors share the secrets of their success.

Julie Gould: 0:11

Hello, I’m Julie Gould. And this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. Welcome to our new series, all about mentoring.

Julie Gould: 0:30

I started this journey with a pretty simple definition of what a mentor is. Someone who you turn to for advice in an area that they are more experienced in than you, And that someone shares their experiences and insights with you. And you take from that what you will.

But it turns out that for some, mentors are so much more. And that is what we’ll find out in this seven-part series all about mentoring.

Across the series, we’ll also explore how mentoring differs across the world. And we’ll learn about other similar roles that can happen alongside mentoring, such as coaching and supervising.

Then there are also the different types of mentoring. Peer to peer mentoring, employer mentoring, reverse mentoring, as well as how mentoring relationships change throughout your career, the challenges of those mentoring relationships, and the difference between academic and industry based mentoring relationships.

But in this first episode, I’m going to look at what it means to be recognized as a mentor.

Scientists spend many hours doing science. But many, many hours are spent on something else, something rewarding, fulfilling, and ultimately, for some, a lot more important.

This something is called mentoring. And unfortunately, given the amount of time people spend on this, it is not as widely recognized as the scientific work.

Magdalena Skipper 1:53

It’s almost as if we talk about mentorship in the abstract, that of course we expect academics, lab heads, PIs, lecturers to be mentors.

But in this abstract sense we don’t necessarily talk to individuals about how to support mentors in that way when they face their own challenges.

We all know that mentorship is important. And yet, we don’t seem to value it appropriately. And indeed recognize individuals who devote time and energy and passion to mentoring.

Julie Gould: 2:30

That was Magdalena Skipper, editor-in-chief at Nature, and part of her role is to run and manage the Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science. It was set up by her predecessor Sir Phillip Campbell, and the awards aim to recognize the huge efforts that academics put into supporting and training the researchers they work with.

Over the years, the award has been split into two categories, one for mid career mentoring achievement, and one for Lifetime Achievement.

Magdalena Skipper: 2:56

The fundamentals are the same It’s the same principle, the application process is the same, the judging process essentially unfolds in the same way.

But the reason why we’ve introduced these two categories is simply because it’s very difficult to compare those who maybe have just 10 or 15 years of experience in terms of mentoring, maybe the lab members or students or even colleagues, with those who spent a lifetime doing so and perhaps now are nearing retirement and perhaps still maintain some mentoring relationships professionally.

Julie Gould: 3:32

Every year, the awards are focused on a different country. And in 2020, the focus was on mentors in Israel. Netta Erez from Tel Aviv University studies tumour biology in her lab, and she was a joint awardee for the mid career mentoring prize. And I asked her to tell me what it felt like to have her mentoring role formally recognized.

Neta Erez: 3:53

It was an award that I was recommended for by my former and current students and postdocs. So people that I was the mentor of submitted my candidacy for this award.

So really, you know, I got all kinds of things in the past, but I was never so moved, like I was with this award.

So it’s really amazing to be rewarded for something that you really put your heart into.

We are kind of expected to pick them up as we go along. And when I became a PI, I realized that I was grateful for the mentors that did help me get to, you know, having my own lab. What I tell my students when they come to do a PhD in my lab is that they start as my students, but I want them to graduate as my peers because I want to be able to to mentor them and provide them with these tools that can make them more successful. It’s more than just how to plan an experiment, how to phrase a hypothesis. These are all obvious things that you need to learn to be a scientist. But there’s so much more than that, that a good mentor should be able to give the people that they are mentoring,

Julie Gould: 5:26

Joint mid career mentoring awardee, and also from Tel Aviv University, Tal Pupko believes that when you take on the role of being a group leader, or supervisor or PI, or any position where you have researchers working in your group, your focus should be on developing the people.

Tal Pupko: 5:43

So I say that mentoring is your way to provide means for your research students to grow up, both in science and at the personal level, so that they they become better persons, better scientists, better everything.

So you don’t care so much about the science, because in science you care about them. You want them to become better scientists, you want them to become to become better person, to think more critically about things, about improving their computational scale, the writing skills, or their soft set of skills. And to enjoy it along the way. It’s also super important that you want to see the spark in their eyes when they do science, and when they talk about science and to understand how science is done.

Julie Gould 6:39

But mentoring, as we’ve heard, is often learned on the job. And this learning continues throughout your career,

Tal Pupko: 6:45

You can always improve. I’m sure that my mentoring can also be improved. And if you care about it, it will it will come naturally. And usually we all sit in departments and faculty and there are people that we know that that would mentor or so we can always ask them advice and get feedback and we can only improve. We just need to care. I think that the the critical aspect is to care.

Julie Gould: 7:13

Hannah Margalit is a bioinformatician and computational biologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And she is someone who really does care about the people that she works with. She was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award for mentoring in 2020. And when I asked her about why she mentors, she said she’d never really thought about it.

Hannah Margalit: 7:32

It’s so much built in in me that I that I think this is one of the main tasks of a PI in the university. We are doing the research together with the students and we have a common aim, and one is more experienced than the other. So I make sure that they will get all the qualifications that they need in order to become independent researchers.

Julie Gould: 8:00

Hannah has been a mentor to many researchers over the years, some of whom recommended her for this particular award. But Hannah has also been mentored, even later in her scientific career, by those who are younger than her. This concept – being mentored by someone who is more junior, and typically younger- is often known as reverse mentoring. And Hannah thinks it’s great.

Hannah Margalit: 8:23

I think it does not go by degree of by hierarchy, because we are talking here about expertise. So if there is somebody that is the less, you know, advanced in his career, but he’s more experienced in one discipline that is needed to achieve, you know, the mission. So why not? Yeah, I was really open to it.

Julie Gould: 8:44

The mentoring awards have been awarded to researchers around the world. So I wondered whether Magdalena Skipper might have noticed any differences in how people mentor in different countries.

Magdalena Skipper 8:55

It is at once different and the same. So mentorship is universal as a concept. There are these fundamental values and principles that guide this mentor-mentee relationship, which remain constant. You know, after all, we as individuals need support and guidance in a very similar way regardless of where we are, it’s actually more than the circumstances under which we need their guidance and support.

But there are some differences. And there may be differences in mentorship style, which are defined by, let’s say, you know, how formal or informal relationships can be between the more senior mentors and more junior mentees.

But the fundamental basis remains universal around the globe, which perhaps is not surprising, and it’s also quite encouraging that, you know, we all have very similar needs, and we can exchange mentorship values and tips right across the globe across cultures, across social situations.

Julie Gould: 10:03

And it’s this that we’ll explore in the next part of this Working Scientist podcast series all about mentoring. I’ll be speaking to researchers in India, Japan, Singapore, Norway, and other places to find out if social and cultural norms determine mentoring relationships, and how they are formed.

Thanks for listening. I’m Judy Gould.

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