Dr. Harry S. Nick
UF Department of Neuroscience
2006-2007 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
I have been a faculty member of the University of Florida since 1985. I have also been continually funded through the National Institutes of Health for that entire time frame, which has allowed me to pursue my greatest passion which has been the training of graduate students. In my 20-plus years on the faculty, I have mentored 18 PhD students and one Master’s student, and currently have four PhD candidates in the laboratory. I have also participated as a member of numerous student thesis committees from many of the colleges at UF. I have had the pleasure of teaching graduate students in formal lecture environments. I have been involved in the recruitment of PhD candidates as the graduate recruiter of my previous department for six years and finally, the most self satisfying aspect, being the opportunity for one on one graduate research training.
My overall philosophy for graduate training is driven by the belief that the only lasting epitaph for an academician is not the number of his/her publications, the amount of research funding he/she has received over a career or how many invited lectures/scientific presentations are listed on his/her curriculum vitae but rather the true legacy is the success of the people one has trained. Your papers will be forgotten soon after their release, but if your name is attached to the training of an individual, your legacy will be far more enduring. This belief makes the final development of a scientist a truly admirable and lasting accomplishment.
My approach to graduate research training was most strongly affected by one of my undergraduate biology professors who revealed to me that the best scientists are not focused only on their limited frame of reference but rather are the most well rounded in their knowledge base and approach. He also demonstrated that as scientific research has an inherent level of risk, a broad knowledge base must be served by an attitude of “NO FEAR” (a phrase coined by a recent generation) to challenge dogma and thus the secrets of nature with innovation. I was extremely fortunate to have a postdoctoral mentor who completely embodied these traits and I have therefore tried to the best of my abilities to emulate them through my own actions and approaches, as viewed by my students.
My strategy for graduate training is based on the belief that trial and error is a requirement in the early stages of research endeavors. Mistakes made are truly lessons learned, as long as encouragement and support are also part of the process. My strong handed adage is that my way or the lab’s method is always the only way but my advice is to include your approach in conjunction with “my way.” Most satisfying and encouraging is to have a student come back after the “my way” speech and prove that their approach/idea was better. I have found that proving your mentor’s arrogance as unfounded is the best way to build self confidence and respect, so that the education process proceeds more smoothly.
I also believe that all researchers should be able to multitask. I encourage students to pursue multiple avenues or projects at first, not only to always have success behind one of the doors they open but to also develop the ability to oversee and implement multiple projects. I have also found that this helps develop the requirement for a well-rounded knowledge base through the need to grasp several different or divergent projects.
Another critical component of my training philosophy is the necessity to become the teacher. I strongly request that my students are involved in training other graduate students, undergraduates or a technician at some point in their PhD. As expecting that everyone can multitask, teaching is also not everyone’s inherent calling. However, I always strongly encourage students to help develop these skills because more often than not, this experience makes them much better scientists. It raises an awareness of strategies that they may not have considered and forces them to understand their work at a level that most often they did not obviously appreciate, as well as giving them first-hand teaching experience.
The final stage of a PhD student’s development occurs about a year, plus or minus six months, before they defend. This is the point where I must decide when to remove my input, eliminating frequent data review and strategy sessions. More importantly, the hope is that the student just decides on their own that the umbilical cord needs to gradually be severed and my input becomes more drudgery than a necessity. As long as mutual respect has been preserved between mentor and student then the occurrence of these events are always a clear demonstration that an independent and self-confident scientist will emerge.
From a didactic standpoint, we religiously have weekly lab meetings where the students rotate presenting their data. They are strongly encouraged to discuss other members’ science and provide input. Knowledge of everyone else’s science is an important aspect of the well-rounded researcher who can multitask. My most effective approach is obviously the one-on-one interaction to discuss strategy and results. These are the most enjoyable and demanding points of graduate education because both frustration and encouragement must be juggled with the appropriate psychological approach. At times my most effective tool is a box of tissues and fatherly encouragement.
I also take enormous pride in the development of a scientist who is well prepared to present their data publicly. I always try to have my student presentations stand out as examples of a well-prepared and knowledgeable scientist. The main rule of thumb is to make sure that you teach your audience something while you impress them with your data and never assume that anyone will be offended if you take the time to hold the audience’s hand and walk them through background, strategy and data. Presentations are also a teaching tool in that I encourage senior students who have spent their time with me to take on my role in sculpting the presentation of a junior student before I am involved. These sessions are often followed by inclusion of the senior student in further discussions and a session before the entire lab for practice. Another didactic tool is participation in the preparation of a manuscript since I strongly believe that lead authorship mandates a significant role in the writing process. The student is encouraged to provide the rough draft and, with the advent of track changes, changes can now become suggestions that can be considered by both student and mentor. I have also developed the approach where the student and mentor sit in front of the computer and spend valuable time finalizing the verbiage and strategy for presentation. This practice has been invaluable to both the student and myself, as an effective learning experience.
As with the philosophy I have described, my approaches to graduate training are still an education process for me requiring refinement, as each individual provides new challenges. The privilege and pleasure for me, which remains in this time of limited research funding, is the opportunity to have a role in the emergence of an independent scientist.