Dr. P.J. Hansen
UF Department of Animal Sciences
2002-2003 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
When I was a senior PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, my major professor, Edward R. Hauser, once asked me about my philosophy for teaching graduate students. The discussion that followed was unsettling. Until he asked me the question, I thought I knew almost everything I needed to know to start a successful career as an assistant professor and research scientist. I had seen Hauser in action and admired his skills as a graduate mentor but I never thought to articulate a series of principles for being an effective mentor. Since then, over 15 years ago, I have had the good fortune to ponder the issue of graduate mentoring, study role models like Ed Hauser and others, and test and refine my ideas by interacting with my own and other graduate students. I have had 13 PhD and 7 MS students of my own complete their degrees, hosted 18 postdoctoral scientists in the lab and currently have 2 PhD and 4 MS students working with me. Along the way, I have developed some mentoring objectives that work well for me and which many of my colleagues profess as well. While what follows is framed in terms of a graduate student in the biological sciences, much is pertinent to mentoring students in any scholarly pursuit.
Teach the Fundamentals
I strive to ensure that my graduate students have mastered the basic tools of the scientist — that they know how to frame a hypothesis, design an experiment to test that hypothesis, have the statistical tools to analyze the results of the experiment, and can interpret the results in an unbiased manner. This I do by having them practice the scientific method whenever possible, for example, by conducting their own experiments, by dissection of each others’ experiments and papers in the literature in journal club, and by postmortem analysis of seminars. I also want students to have a good understanding of the basic facts of their discipline and I work with each student to design a rigorous course program. Moreover, students should be able to identify current concepts in their discipline and build conceptual models regarding an area of science under investigation so they can identify researchable areas and testable hypotheses. One way that I give students experience developing these skills is through a course I teach called Current Concepts in Reproductive Biology (ANS 6313) that is based on analysis of recently published review articles. I also expose my students to a multitude of laboratory procedures so they become skilled in the most up-to-date methodology for collecting data. Finally, I give students lots of opportunity for writing and speaking since effective communication is one of the hallmarks of a successful scientist.
Science is a noble enterprise and I want students to develop values consistent with that view. Values about science are transmitted by making them at the center of the mentor’s approach to his vocation and by actively discussing opinions about science and the practice of science with students. Students should be committed to discovery of knowledge rather than to career building, publishing at all costs, etc. They should be willing to constantly question their own hypotheses and ideas and insist on a rigorous approach to development of ideas. Students should be honest in all their undertakings, intellectual and otherwise. Efforts should be made to nurture the curiosity, love of learning, and joy in discovery that many students bring to a scientific vocation.
Develop Independent Thinking and Action
The capacity for independent intellectual activity is one of the hallmarks of a successful scientist and it is important that students get the opportunity to develop these skills, particularly in the PhD program. All of my students have been supported by grants. I have found it possible, however, to give students ample opportunity to develop independent research directions within the larger goals of the specific objectives of a grant-funded research project. I encourage them to develop new ideas and to test them experimentally. I also give students the opportunity to develop new techniques in the lab. Although getting a new technique to work can be frustrating and time consuming, it gives students very valuable experience in trouble-shooting laboratory procedures. Moreover, provided sufficient laboratory and intellectual resources are available, developing a new technique can be a very positive experience for a student that builds confidence in his or her ability to constantly expand the repertoire of laboratory techniques that can be brought to beat on a research problem.
Develop an Interdisciplinary Approach to Science
As is well known, science today is becoming increasingly complex and solutions to problems often require expertise from several disciplines. This is certainly true for animal science physiology research. Early on, it is important to educate students about the value of interdisciplinary research and give them the skills needed to function in such a research environment. My students practice interdisciplinary research by engaging in it themselves (most PhD theses involve at least some work in the lab of a colleague in another discipline), by having supervisory committee members from other disciplines and by participating in two interdisciplinary research organizations on campus — the Interdisciplinary Reproductive Biology Group (IRB) and the Animal Molecular and Cell Biology Graduate Program (AMCB). The IRB is a campus-wide organization that has held a weekly seminar since 1969 and which exposes students to a wide variety of approaches to reproductive biology research while allowing them to interact personally with faculty across campus with interests in reproduction. The AMCB is an interdisciplinary graduate concentration that teaches students the application of molecular and cell biology to the animal and veterinary sciences. Students learn interdisciplinary research by participating in rotations in labs of two scientists and through participation in the monthly AMCB seminar series and the twice-monthly AMCB journal club.
Make It Fun
Science can be exasperating, especially to a graduate student who has not yet developed the confidence to accept the frequent frustrations associated with science. To encourage them and make them appreciate the joys of science, I try to make the lab a fun place to work. We laugh and joke together. I also celebrate each student’s successes. I praise a student when something works or when diligent effort has been applied to a project that is difficult to get off the ground. I encourage them not to be disturbed by failure but to realize that it is a normal part of science and a learning experience. I place students in situations where they have to work together and where they socialize together. I encourage them to be loyal to each other.
Buy In to Each Student
One cannot be an outstanding mentor unless one is prepared to fully commit to your students. Be ready to sacrifice for your students — forego other activities so you can give full attention to each student. Constantly seek to improve your mentoring skills. Be a good role model by practicing the principles and values that you wish to impart to your students. Work to make each student, regardless of their innate ability, the best scientist and person that he or she can be. Try to understand each student’s personality, background, aspirations, strengths and limitations. Listen to them. Find out what is holding them back and what opportunities are within their grasp. Be loyal to them — they are helping to build your career and giving you the opportunity to participate in a most worthwhile activity — building tomorrow’s scientific leaders.