Strategic Mentoring: A Case Study

The opportunity to problem solve and think together is a critical part of mentoring

By Travis Thompson, PhD

Mentor was the guide and advisor of Odysseus’s son, Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey, which is the origin of the word that we use today to refer to an experienced and trusted advisor or guide. During my formative years, several faculty colleagues served as influential guides who shaped my professional development. More importantly, they served as models of what it means to be a mentor.

As an undergraduate I was drawn to Psychology by Kenneth MacCorquodale, who taught courses on behavior analysis in the Department of Psychology at the University of Minnesota. MacCorquodale was a remarkable teacher, who had been one of the first graduate students to study with B.F.Skinner when he was at the University of Minnesota. Gordon Heistad, who had been a student of Howard Hunt’s at the University of Chicago and a classmate of Joseph Brady, served as my doctoral advisor, who stimulated my interest in the newly emerging field of behavioral pharmacology. I consumed Peter Dews’s 1955-59 papers with a voracious appetite, concluding Dews was to behavioral pharmacology what Charlie Parker was to jazz. His work turned my scientific world upside down.

When I completed my doctorate, Heistad urged me to pursue postdoctoral work with Joseph Brady at the University of Maryland. At the Psychopharmacology Laboratory of the University of Maryland, Brady modeled scientific leadership. Joe is a strategic thinker who surrounded himself with the brightest people he could find, both at Walter Reed and at the Maryland Laboratory. At Maryland, that included Charlie Ferster, Lou Gollub, Stanley Pliskoff, Jack Findley, and Bob Schuster (who was still a graduate student). I learned from Joe the importance of creating the necessary infrastructure to support research. Our professional staff included a full time veterinarian and an engineer who designed Ed Foringer’s original rat operant laboratory equipment. While Joe provided essential infrastructure, the digs weren’t always palatial. Bob Schuster and I shared our first monkey drug self- administration lab that was a foyer to the building’s men’s restroom.

When I returned to the University of Minnesota, I was asked to assume the leadership of the Department of Psychiatry’s new animal research laboratory, which became our behavioral pharmacology laboratory. I applied for NIMH and NSF grants, and a University of Minnesota Graduate School research grant in my first year on the faculty, and garnered all three. Fred Shideman (Chair of Pharmacology) and Gordon Heistad (Head of the Psychiatry Research Unit) also asked me to direct the new Psychopharmacology Training Program for which they had received NIMH funding. Applying Joe Brady’s maxim of surrounding yourself with the brightest people you could find, I recruited Roy Pickens as our first post-doctoral fellow, fresh out of Ole Miss. Among the first cohort of graduate students that enrolled in our new training program were George Bigelow, John Grabowski, Roland Griffiths, and Richard Meisch, not a shabby lot young scientists.

When Sheldon Sparber completed his PhD in pharmacology and joined the faculty, I invited Sheldon Sparber, Roy Pickens and Dick Meisch to join me as the leadership team of our training program. Dick was an MD-PhD with a background in philosophy of science and pharmacology. Roy was a pragmatic experimentalist who was rapidly emerging as moving force in our laboratory, and Sheldon was one of the first pharmacology PhDs trained by Fred Shideman in neurobehavioral pharmacology. Table 1 (PDF, 25KB) presents a partial list of the 47 doctoral students whom I have mentored. Table 1 shows doctoral students specifically supported by our training grant in behavioral pharmacology that have gone on to make substantial independent contributions. Some did their dissertation research addressing operant theoretical questions in animal or human subjects, but most pursued pharmacological investigations.

I wanted our doctoral students to look back upon their graduate training as a positive experience that gave direction to their professional lives, and created a set of scientific values. Graduate education is all about the working relationship between student and mentor. If it is a relationship of mutual respect, then you’re half way there. At our weekly mentoring meetings, occasionally students would show up in my office wearing a defeated expression. They muttered something about their data being garbage. The hardest lesson for graduate students to learn is that there are always regularities to be found in their data no matter how chaotic they may initially appear. The secret is helping them learn which questions to ask in ferreting out those regularities.

In advising graduate students, I adopted the credo, thou shalt not whine. If you have a problem, come to me with a description of the problem, your analysis of the situation, and what you’ve tried so far and what happened as a result. Then you won’t need to whine because we’ll find a solution together. The opportunity to problem solve and think together is a critical part of mentoring. Faculty, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows affiliated with our laboratory gathered at my home on Wednesday evenings for a Seminarty, to discuss research, propose research, and to review relevant literature. Ample beer, chips, and dip were used to lubricate the discussion that began at 7pm and often lasted until after 10pm.

We came up with the idea that drugs serve the same functions as more familiar variables in the analysis of behavior, or modulate those variables. That is what is meant by behavioral mechanisms of drug action, the pursuit of which was our laboratory’s mission. One of my goals was to assist up and coming stars, like Roy Pickens, Dick Meisch, and John Grabowski to launch independent careers. Roy and Dick garnered faculty appointments at Minnesota. I asked them to serve as Co-Principal investigators on one of the grants for which I was applying. At the beginning of the third year of the five year grant award, I wrote to the funding agency and indicated that our roles as PI and Co-PI were going to be reversed, i.e. Roy or Dick would become PI and I would be Co-PI. That way, when it came time for competitive renewal application, they would have served as PI for two years, making them more credible as PI. The strategy worked well, and I believe both of them successfully obtained continued funding on their own based on an established track record. It is useful to remember that a graduate student is a young colleague who will one day vote a priority score on your grant application.

We also wrote and edited several books together, including Readings in Behavioral Pharmacology, Stimulus Properties of Drugs and a book on the first major behavior analysis-based intervention program for people with developmental disabilities (Behavior Modification of the Mentally Retarded), by John Grabowski and me, which played a role in deinstitutionalization in Minnesota. These experiences gradually exposed them to the successes that came with professional competence.

I have always believed in the value of providing high attainable expectations for trainees, combined with positive support. Nearly all students rise to the occasion if given the opportunity. Effective mentoring involves assisting students and postdoctoral fellows in developing their own strategies for posing and answering important questions. Technique-oriented tactics are generally ineffective because their applicability is limited. Big picture strategies based on solid theoretical underpinnings, that can apply to nearly any new problem are generally more successful. It is easy for a faculty member to look good if they surround themselves with bright students who are excited about what they’re doing, and who assimilate these effective strategies, which are essential ingredients in effective mentoring.