Learn how becoming a mentor is fulfilling and rewarding by reading the following interview with Dr. Woodbury who served as a mentor to 2010 Davidson Fellow Laureate Kyle Loh (pictured at right).
1. How did your protégé find you?
I run a university lab that does stem cell research. The protégé was very focused on working with stem cells. He contacted one of my students to arrange a tour of the lab. He followed up by emailing a detailed proposal for a research project he wanted to perform in the lab. I was impressed with the amount of effort he put into this proposal, and the unique approach he wanted to take. After an additional meeting, I decided to take a chance and sponsor his research activities. His enthusiasm convinced me that this would be an enjoyable venture.
2. Do you have any successful tips or strategies to offer students who are looking for a mentor?
I think it is very important for the student to do their homework before approaching a mentor. Know what he/she is doing and devise an area of study that compliments their efforts. The more well designed the student’s proposal is, the more likely they are to be successful in getting the attention of a prospective mentor.
3. What type of mentoring relationship did you experience? i.e.- via email, phone, in person meetings, weekly, monthly etc.
The mentoring was hands on. The student came to the lab 5-6 days/week over the course of two semesters.
4. How did you prepare for the mentorship?
This mentoring required designing a project that would be safe and provide the student with a real laboratory work experience. Due to the exceptional maturity of the student, the steps taken in preparation were similar to those used in designing undergraduate and graduate student projects. The protégé was treated like any other student in the lab, with the exception of increased supervision to ensure his safety.
5. What characteristics do you look for in a student who you are going to mentor?
There are several characteristics that are important in any student, and in particular students of a young age. There is a certain amount of risk involved in mentoring a very young student. These risks are diminished if the student is mature and responsible. The student should also demonstrate a desire to work hard. This is easily judged by the effort put into drafting a proposal. Lastly, the student has to be truly interested in research. Students who appear to be doing a project because it looks good on paper are unlikely to benefit from the experience.
6. Why do you think it is important to be a mentor?
Being a mentor takes time and effort, and in many instances involves some risk. Many people are unwilling to take on this challenge, particularly with a young student. However, being a mentor, and especially a student’s first mentor, allows the student to get his/her foot in the door. That is often all that they need. Subsequent mentorships get easier to find, opportunities present themselves and the student flourishes. Being the mentor that provides that first opportunity is important and rewarding.
7. What advice do you have for future mentors or mentees?
I would encourage prospective mentors to take a chance on the student. Provide that important opportunity. You will be glad you did. I would advise students to be well prepared before approaching a mentor. And never give up. If a potential mentor don’t work out, thank him/her for their time and move on to the next person on your list. Eventually you will be successful. Establishing that first mentoring relationship will be the most difficult. It gets easier from there.
Here is what Mr. Woodbury’s protégé had to say about their experience.
When I was 13 years old, entering Rutgers University and keen to embark on stem cell research, I found almost no faculty members willing to let me enter their stem cell laboratories—save one; Dr. Dale Woodbury. Dr. Woodbury is unequivocally one of the rare outstanding mentors whose direction completely changes the course of one’s education and career—he certainly changed mine.
Dr. Woodbury is atypical in many respects, in both his selflessness and his dedication. When I came to him after reading his papers and asked to visit his laboratory, Dr. Woodbury remarked “I know that no one else will teach him, so I will”—knowing that it was extraordinarily difficult for any 13 year old to possibly find a position in any other competitive stem cell research laboratory, he took a leap of faith and decided to let me in. His commitment to his students is far more than at the research level—he doesn’t simply see students as extra pairs of hands in the lab, as others do. Once he accepts a student, his commitment to them is also at the personal level—he always spoke to me in a personal capacity and was always sensitive to my personal well-being and ensuring that I was doing well outside of the lab. What one can contribute to Dr. Woodbury’s research efforts is less important than how that individual’s own career and wellbeing fares, in his opinion.
Within the laboratory, Dr. Woodbury is wholly unlike any other lab director. In five laboratories I’ve been in, Dr. Woodbury was the only one who actually sat down with me and went through procedures in a step-by-step fashion. He formed a personal connection with me, and urged me to ask him technical questions, no matter how trivial. Even when I committed serious mistakes for several months, he kept his cool and simply reiterated and reified concepts until I got them. It was only after I left his laboratory to go to labs at Harvard and elsewhere did I realize how uncommon his style of teaching was. Dr. Woodbury was a faculty member with decades of lab experience; faculty members elsewhere are expected to spend their days writing papers and grants, not teaching teenagers hands-on. Elsewhere, the job of teaching undergraduates is relegated to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows—nevertheless, Dr. Woodbury took it upon himself to do the job.
He is also persistent in furthering my career. When I applied to a Harvard program, I was initially rejected until they read Dr. Woodbury’s letter of recommendation; it was so outstanding that they made a phone call to Dr. Woodbury to speak to him personally and to consider revising their previous decision—I was ultimately accepted. Dr. Woodbury has always looked out for my career and has been willing to write me letters of recommendation to anywhere.
The course of my entire education and career was completely changed by Dr. Woodbury’s personable and unique mentorship—within four years, he turned me from a 13-year-old leaving community college to a 16-year-old accepted to Stanford for graduate school and who has done research at Harvard and Singapore. I cannot be more grateful to this extraordinary mentor.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
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