Mentoring Mumbles

Advice from 40 years doing science in the public & private sectors

Mentor: "OK. Now just left a bit . . ."
Post-doc: "Are you sure you left the Zoom password in here?"

Mentors are a must

Whether physically or virtually located relative to where you operate, an "impartial" advisor should be seriously considered. I have always lacked one through: inaction / concern about my results being hijacked / immaturity / impatience / pride (delete whichever is inapplicable). But with the benefit of hindsight, had I found one, my career would probably been very different and I would have shared (in the case of a physical mentor) more enjoyable time in the bar. Why do I say this? Please read on:

Getting cited

You may like it or not, but citations have always been an important factor in gauging the significance of your work, whether your reader is another researcher, an employer or a funding body, to mention just three interested parties. Being cited should and most often does depend upon the contribution your publication makes to knowledge, but in the first instance your publication has to reach the widest potentially interested audience. Both the way you construct your communication and where you publish, really matters.

Especially now papers are found by search algorithms and not librarians or printed reprint requests as in my day, your paper's title is very important to reach the widest audience. I give two examples. The first one is my own.

In 1986 I published a key paper in Nature. I entitled it: "A consensus amino-acid sequence repeat in Torpedo and mammalian Ca2+-dependent membrane-binding proteins". How many Nature readers had ever heard of "Torpedo" (an electric ray)? And my title completely missed the point of wider interest: a new protein family. A mentor (I had none) might have suggested that: “Sequence analysis indicates a new membrane-specific family of calcium binding proteins” would reach a wider audience. Mind you, even that title that is rather long. Short titles are good; but obviously not journalistic type hyped headlines. Perhaps the ultimate example would be the seminal Watson-Crick Nature paper. Instead of "A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid" they might justifiably have entitled their seminal 1953 paper "A Molecular Mechanism for Inheritance" instead of including that thought at the end of their paper (although that was cleverly underplayed). Anyone disagree? But of course Nature already reaches a very wide audience. Elsewhere things may (still) be different.

Directly relating to that last example, Francis Crick Institute director Paul Nurse has urged all researchers to be much more forthcoming with their ideas in publications. He quoted Nobel Laureate, Sydney Brenner's complaint that "We are drowning in a sea of data and starving for knowledge". What, we ask, is holding back researchers from valid (and thoughtful) speculation? Incorrect (or even false) data is a bad thing as it may damage future studies as well as reputations, but legitimate speculation can only be a good thing, as this is what has always driven science forward. Indeed, if your early ideas stand the test of time, then much of the credit should attribute to you (and you should claim it!).

In this regard you are encouraged to release results early on preprint servers, which will be much more likely to reach the right people to engage with your results. Easy as well as timely access to your results will certainly affect your citations. Studies have shown that work released on the preprint server bioRxiv, prior to peer-reviewed publication in a journal gather comparatively more citations and are cited for a longer time after publication (but do check with your institution's policies on this!). Studies have also shown that naming your country, or even your region, in your paper's title, abstract or keywords can have a negative effect on citations: shades of the UK's dismal reception in the Eurovision Song Contest here? A more generous explanation might be that science isn't regional or national, but belongs to the whole of humanity.

Today's research is multi-disciplinary

I used humour a lot on my later publications on protein and peptide science. Not sure how that would have gone down with referees in my research papers! I thank Dr. Geof Gadd (Dundee) for his many cartoons

A mentor with complementary skills and experience is always preferable. Perhaps the best possible relationship is one where your mentor (from another discipline) eventually becomes a collaborator and sympathy turns into synergy! But here's a"wildcard": if you really have something that excites you, talk to a competitor! The discoverer of angiogenesis factors & other cytokines, Judah Folkman, said in a talk I attended that his factors possessed "great transforming power". Once their nature became known, they not only transformed resting cells into active ones, they transformed his competitors into collaborators. Obviously after that, Judah's progress was all the greater.

Take home message overall? Mentors are important and not just as proof readers. They can share burdens as well as buying that extra round!

Take Ten years

In Malcolm Gladwell's analysis of high achievers (Bill Gates, the Beatles and many others) he comes up with a common factor in their careers. Persistence often against all odds, pays. In his book Outliers, the story of Success He extracts a magic number - 10 years. This he deduces is the secret of his anecdotal achievers. Not superintelligence, but persistent focus and application over at least 10 years.

I am going to echo his thesis. I moved on to another field or project at least three times in my own career. Had I stayed with the line of research or endeavour I happened to be pursuing, the rewards for doing so would have been so much greater. I can do no more by way of example than to refer to the separate avenues of research I have included on this website. In all cases the eventual outcomes happened to be clinically important or make a significant advance in knowledge. I made a contribution, but would have had even more personal satisfaction had I stayed "on message". Of course this isn't going to apply in every case and staying put, career wise, may sometimes just not be possible. But I will quote just one example from the Life Sciences. In 1947, Max Perutz, supported by the Medical Research Council initially at the Cavendish Labs in Cambridge, persisted for years against all the odds (and mentor advice!) to believe he could overcome the odds and solve the 3D molecular structure of haemoglobin. He did so in 1959 and molecular biology was suddenly transformed.