Dr. Edward K.L. Chan
UF Department of Oral Biology
2012-2013 UF Doctoral Mentoring Award Winner
My philosophy on graduate student training was developed after I joined the Department of Oral Biology in 2002 and started to really appreciate the mission and responsibility in guiding PhD students. Prior to 2002, my mentoring experience was primarily from working with the 25+ MD and/or PhD postdoctoral fellows at the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, from 1990 to 2002. As there was a great diversity of postdoctoral fellows including those from foreign countries with different education background, my experience working with fellows from Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, Italy, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan had provided me with unique insights in individualized research training. Thus although PhD student training, being different from postdoctoral training, was a new challenge to me, I was able to draw from my working relationships with many former research fellows. To date, it has been a highly enjoyable learning experience from interacting with a diversity of bright graduate students over the past 10 years here at the University of Florida.
My own experience is my guide. I have been blessed by having had a few inspiring mentors during my early development. From my pre-college days, I remember a tough and pragmatic teacher who guided me to general chemistry. Nonetheless, this sparked my interest later in organic chemistry, biochemistry and life sciences, diverting me from my interest in mathematics and computer science. The attraction to the many unknowns in life sciences was initiated through a number of great teachers and the course Introduction to Biochemistry was clearly a major charge in the right direction. My beginning in real experimental science, however, came from my graduate advisor and two generous senior graduate students who were responsible for creating an excellent environment for laboratory learning, including all the inevitable failed experiments, as well as a systematic and critical understanding of laboratory basics. A highly enthusiastic member of my PhD advisory committee stimulated my first thoughts about the need for postdoctoral training. Next was the important help I received in picking an outstanding laboratory at the Scripps Research Institute to start my postdoctoral journey. My postdoctoral mentor was willing to teach the many survival skills, from
writing manuscripts and grant proposals to giving presentations. Along my
developmental path, I was fortunate to learn from generous and inspiring mentors. In many ways I feel that I owe my students comparable supportive mentoring basing on my own experience as a graduate student and throughout my research career.
Every student is unique. Graduate student training has to take into consideration
individuality and there is no simple protocol for all students. To a great extent, engaging the interest of a student is an art form. With our current student population including many foreign graduates, we have to understand and overcome the potential differences in cultural and ethnic background. It is a highly fulfilling experience to motivate a student to achieve the best that he or she is capable of. It would be fantastic when a student “happens” to be driven to perform the best research work, aligning exactly with the mentor’s direction; sometimes this is possible. Students need to learn that troubleshooting is the critical survival skill for good research and to appreciate the difference between a well written laboratory protocol versus an outstanding teacher who leads and explains the reason for each critical step. In hindsight, I realize that my first laboratory mentors provided a highly tolerant environment for me to develop at my own pace. I also learned from failed and successful experiments and that successes are both challenging and highly rewarding. A good mentor needs understanding and adjusts to each graduate student with the hope that the final goal will be reached — by pushing and pulling, quick and slow, all the way.
Research learning from the “random collision” of bright ideas. In working with tissue culture cells, cell biologists know that different cell types do not all get readily transfected with foreign genetic materials. However, to create the optimal conditions to introduce exogenous RNA or DNA into a given cell type can be critical to the success of many cell-based experiments. How we “transfect” ideas to students — especially to those who seem more like primary cells with low transfection efficiency — can be a constant challenge. The trick is to be willingly innovative in order to overcome difficulties and to identify and really take on the challenge. Once we have a good transfection, we still have to take time for the experiment to reveal what we anticipate; the ability to instill patience maybe one of the many survival skills for mentors. It is highly rewarding to stimulate students with new approaches, wow them with inspiring visiting speakers, bring them to great scientific meetings, and challenge them with all kinds of thought-provoking research questions and examples.
Spending quality time to understand the needs of our students. One of the most satisfying experiences is to be able to follow a student from the earliest stage when he or she is a novice to the time of graduation and know that that student has
demonstrated a strong record of achievement and can recite references that we all can be proud of. Students need encouragement. Mentors also need encouragement and reinforcement from students. There is a continuing need for the development of good and effective communication and it is necessary to ensure exchange of expectation in both directions. I have made it a point to have regular informal lunches with my graduate students and I encourage all of them to spend time with each other as well to ensure a harmonious working environment in the laboratory and that they can learn from each other.
Guidance. What do PhD students need to prepare for their future? My style will adjust to each student to achieve their full potentials. In addition to the standard requirements in writing manuscripts and strong oral presentation, students are exposed to submission process for manuscript and the rebuttal process, training as a reviewer for submitted manuscripts, helping with grant writing, work with collaborators — how to work as team players as it is required in the real world, and how to apply for postdoctoral or other professional positions.
As mentors, it is a fun journey where, with only a few short years, we guide and make a difference to some of the best individuals we will ever work with and, we hope this will create a close bond for years to come. A strong research experience has to start at the graduate school and the mentor’s job is highly critical.