When it comes to mentoring in the area of scientific research, said Nobel Prize winner Tom Cech, PhD, there is no magic formula to success.
“There has to be a combination of empathy and support, but mixed in with critique and course correction,” he said. “People are usually appreciative of this.”
Cech, a renowned biochemist, shared his thoughts on mentoring, lifelong learning and some of his research into telomerase, which play a significant role in the study of cancer. He was the keynote speaker for today’s capstone presentations of the School of Medicine’s Mentored Scholarly Activity curriculum on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
The goal of the MSA requirement for undergraduate medical students is to foster self-directed, lifelong learning over the course of their career.
“An advantage of a lifetime of scholarly activity is you meet great people and you get to keep interacting with them at conferences,” Cech told the group of more than 100 students in Education 2 South. “Sometimes we even vacation together.”
He showed a photo of himself with colleagues on the Galapagos Islands. “It’s sort of an RNA world expedition,” Cech said, drawing chuckles from the students.
Cech discovered the principle of RNA catalysis, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989. He is currently the director of the Biofrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, a grassroots effort to bridge traditional academic silos and encourage collaboration between scientists.
Cech, who grew up in Iowa, shared stories of his early academic career at the University of California-Berkeley. “I never knew what kind of scientist I wanted to be. I always assumed it would be some kind of physical scientist.”
But he discovered he didn’t like working with the apparatus in a physical science lab and switched to chemistry. Initially, he wasn’t enthralled with chemical research, either, but John E. Hearst, PhD, at Berkeley became an influential mentor. Hearst showed him that the research could be of a faster pace and style that was to Cech’s liking.
“I was moving into work in chromosomes and repetitive DNA molecules. It opened up a whole new world to me,” Cech said. “That (research style) really fit my needs, and I just never looked back after learning about this new area of biological chemistry.”
Cech shared a story of then becoming a mentor to a biochemist at CU Boulder who at one point became discouraged because a scientist at another institution published findings in similar work, apparently scooping his research into catalytic subunits of telomerase. Granted, the East Coast scientist had used his subunits from another organism.
“I told him, ‘You’re so close to the end here, just finish the project. Very often the person who comes in second has the advantage that they can compare their sequence with the other person’s sequence … This will be a very good accomplishment even if you come in second,'” Cech said. “He went back to the laboratory and continued working on this project, and when we got the sequences back from the gene that he finally cloned he found that they had no correspondence at all to the published sequence.”
Cech showed several slides of being on trips with colleagues and students to the mountains, meeting President George W. Bush in the White House after a colleague had a breakthrough in RNA research, and just large groups of scientists out having a good time.
“Mentoring has a big multiplier effect,” he said. “This just sort of grows. Mentorship has this wonderful expansive quality — it goes exponential.”
He said it remains tricky to determine when to encourage, when to push someone to work harder and when to tell them they need to take more creative approaches to their research.
“Occasionally I’ve gotten it right,” Cech said. “Occasionally I’ve told people the right advice at the right time and it’s changed their career.”