I am very pleased to note that my former undergraduate thesis advisor and influential early mentor, Dr. Chris Wood, has been named a winner of the prestigious Nature award for mentorship. I wrote about my experience in the lab in a blog post last year here. Now that it’s all official, I don’t mind sharing some snippets from my letter supporting his nomination:
I carried out a 4th-year research project in Dr. Wood’s lab on fish physiology and behaviour, and continued to work in the lab as a researcher over the following summer. I can say without reservation that this experience had an enormous impact on my scientific thinking and solidified my desire to pursue an academic career. Indeed, I consider this time one of the most important formative experiences in my development as a scientist. I believe my own approach to running a research group has been heavily influenced by Dr. Wood’s early example. In particular, I attribute learning the following important lessons to Dr. Wood’s mentorship:
• Even if one has a large research group (as he always did), an advisor should be familiar with the details of each project and should maintain a strong relationship with each lab member. I note that Dr. Wood and I have remained in contact for more than a decade after I completed undergraduate research in his lab.
• Regular lab meetings are extremely important, especially in a large group where they allow the advisor to keep track of projects and because they create opportunities for peers to encourage and assist each other.
• Research can be planned in great detail on paper, but the only way to succeed is to get one’s hands dirty and to identify and solve the inevitable problems that arise in real experiments. This is a lesson I still teach to every new student in my lab.
• Setting an example by being knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the research is critical for maintaining strong lab morale. Dr. Wood excelled in this capacity.
• One can have very high standards for excellence in research and expect a great deal from students while still making the lab an enjoyable and engaging place to work.
• That it is important to provide students with the equipment and other resources that they need, and to make it clear that they have the support of the lab for completing their research. This helps to inspire confidence in students.
• Social activities as a lab group are important. Dr. Wood is well known for hosting barbecues, for celebrating the accomplishments of lab members, and for building camaraderie through events such as an annual lab golf tournament. I make a point of emphasizing a team atmosphere in my lab and encourage social activities as a group.
• That students, including undergraduates, should be given the opportunity to publish their work and to present it at conferences. In fact, my first three publications were with Dr. Wood, based on research carried out in his lab during my undergraduate program. Collectively, these papers have been cited 180 times to date:
Gregory, T.R. and C.M. Wood (1999). The effects of chronic plasma cortisol elevation on the feeding behaviour, growth, competitive ability, and swimming performance of juvenile rainbow trout. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 72: 286-295.
Gregory, T.R. and C.M. Wood (1999). Interactions between individual feeding behaviour, growth, and swimming performance in juvenile rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) fed different rations. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 56: 479-486.
Gregory, T.R. and C.M. Wood (1998). Individual variation and interrelationships between swimming performance, growth rate, and feeding in juvenile rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 55: 1583-1590.
I am extremely grateful to Dr. Wood for the opportunity to have worked in his lab, and for the long-lasting influence that his mentorship has had for me and my own students.
Please provide examples of mentoring (e.g. critical moments or sustained interactions) that illustrate the nominee’s success at mentoring you.
Even after more than 12 years, several things stand clearly in my mind about my time in Dr. Wood’s lab. A few examples:
• At the beginning of a late night of data collecting, Dr. Wood confided in me that one of the times in his career in which he worked the hardest was as an undergraduate researcher, due to the major time constraints involved. The only time that surpassed this in intensity, he said, was the first year as a faculty member. He was quite right about this – but recalling what he said helped me to get through the challenging first year as a professor.
• It was Dr. Wood himself who showed me how to use some of the equipment that I needed, and he even allowed some significant modifications to be made to a major apparatus for my project. The fact that he took a personal interest and expressed this confidence in my project meant a great deal to me.
• Halfway through my project, I asked to re-start the experiment based on various things I had figured out during the first run. After some convincing, Dr. Wood allowed me to do so and the study was much stronger for it, even though this meant additional time pressure for my thesis. To this day, I still tell students that their first attempt at any experiment is unlikely to go as planned, and that their job the first time is to figure out what the problems are. Being able to convey this up front helps students to avoid frustration or self doubt when they encounter problems early on.
• After completing my undergraduate thesis, Dr. Wood offered me a summer research position in the lab. Rather than having me assist with other projects, he told me to design and conduct my own studies. These were ultimately published, and since then I have always made efforts to allow students at all levels to take ownership of projects whenever they show potential. It is no coincidence that undergraduates in my lab have also generated publishable research.
Please identify aspects of practice and personality that makes the nominee a successful mentor.
Dr. Wood exemplifies what it means to be an outstanding mentor. He is extremely knowledgeable about his area of research, and he is able to conduct research himself and regularly does so (including in the field). He maintains a calm demeanour and a good sense of humour while still inspiring very high levels of output among his students. In addition, he exudes enthusiasm about his work even after a long and distinguished career, and he still finds excitement in the latest successful grant, new research question, or accepted manuscript. He is well-organized and able to oversee a large group, including being familiar with the specifics of each study and making himself available for discussions with individuals whenever they are needed. Finally, he remains in contact with former lab members and continues to support them even if they have moved on to other areas of research – this is certainly true in my case, in that he has nominated me for two awards and has always been willing to provide recommendation letters even though I have not worked in his field for over a decade.
Congratulations to a great mentor on a well deserved award!