Dr. Lisa McElwee-White


UF Department of Chemistry

2008-2009 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner

In many ways, the mentoring of graduate students is the most interesting and rewarding thing we do as faculty members. My current research group size of eight PhD students, who in turn mentor one M.S. student and four undergraduate researchers, is indicative of my commitment to this vital aspect of education at a research university. Providing guidance to these students as they prepare for careers in academics, industry and national laboratories keeps my own scholarship alive.

One of my favorite parts of mentoring PhD students is introducing them to the concept of science as creative activity. Although funding considerations require that students work within the “big picture” of existing projects in the group, they quickly learn that they must each develop a portion of a larger project and claim it as their own. A younger graduate student will receive preliminary assistance with designing a dissertation project and planning experiments, but he/she is expected to rapidly take responsibility for the work as it evolves. My door is always open for the students to ask questions and discuss their ideas, but they are expected to come in with their own ideas on where the work should go and how to carry out the experiments to test their ideas. Because PhD level scientists are expected to be self-directed and self-motivated in their professional positions after leaving, I do not micromanage students during their dissertation work. Yes, progress on their projects will sometimes be slowed by rookie mistakes, but the ability to recognize and correct mistakes in strategy, experimental design, lab technique and data interpretation is essential for practicing scientists.

Another critical aspect of mentoring is working with the students on their communication skills. Clear, concise writing is essential, because most people will first encounter scientific work through the journal articles that describe it. All students outline and write the first draft of each of their publications. It is understood that the manuscript file from a first paper will come back with most of it in vibrant color from my tracked changes. However, through the iterations of many drafts, the student learns how to write a paper. The student also comes to understand that the best way to figure out when experimental work is complete is to write the manuscript and see where the holes are.

The other vital communication skill is oral and poster presentation of their work. Before students finish their dissertations, I provide opportunities for them to present their work in talks or posters at conferences (over 45 student presentations at international, national and regional conferences in the past 5 years). Attending conferences is also important for networking with other scientists, and getting a broader view of the state of the art in their area of interest. Before any presentation in a departmental seminar or at a conference, the student will practice during my research group meeting. We discuss organization of material, preparation of graphics and speaking skills, with more experienced students giving guidance to those preparing their first presentation.

As students mature, I give them the opportunity to learn mentoring skills by supervising undergraduate researchers. The graduate student initially selects a portion of his/her own project where the undergraduate can make a contribution while learning laboratory techniques. Then the PhD student trains the undergraduate on these procedures, while working side-by-side with the younger student. When the undergraduate is ready to take on an independent project, I engage the graduate student in helping design a discrete piece of work that can be carried out by an undergraduate research student in a reasonable amount of time. This provides the graduate student with excellent training in developing projects for others who have varying levels of laboratory skill, available time and work ethic. It also develops skill in guiding younger scientists through the often frustrating world of experimental science.

All through the mentoring process, I maintain personal contact with my students. I talk science with them, chat about music with them and have group dinners at my house. I laugh with them, celebrate their weddings and congratulate them on the birth of their children. All of this puts a human face on science and the people who practice it. We argue about what experiments to do and how to interpret the data. And I tell them that when they can argue with me and win, they are ready to write up their dissertations.

All of us who do experimental science know that we can be no better than the students we mentor. I have been blessed with an extraordinary group of 26 PhD students (7 at Stanford and 19 at UF), who along with 17 postdocs and 11 M.S. students, have been the heart and soul of my research group. Those PhD students have done well. They have gone on to postdoctoral positions at 4 of the top 5 chemistry departments (Cal Tech, MIT, Stanford and Berkeley). They have joined the labs of two Nobel Prize winners and 5 members of the National Academy of Sciences. PhD graduates from my research group include faculty members at all levels: research universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges and high schools. Others work for Fortune 500 companies, for start-ups and for law firms. Mentoring these scientists at the beginning of their careers has been a pleasure.