Monthly Archives: May 2014


Mentors have been depicted in literature, TV, and movies in multiple ways. Descriptions of imperfect ones are my favorites as they are probably closest to the true situation. Science training has long relied on mentor based training where student joins the laboratory of their adviser and becomes an independent scientists under their tutelage.

Sometimes there is a disconnect between mentor and student, no matter how well the mentor means his advice. The student has knowledge already and is eager to try hands on applications. This reminds me of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV show’s mentoring relationship between Buffy and her “Watcher” Giles. Their approach to the task, in this case “slaying vampires” is very different and causes friction between the characters at times. This relationship is at it’s core however supportive.

This might not be the case in real life. The monster mentor stories are not common, but when you hear them, they are horrific. Blatant disregard to students needs, and even laws, twist the scientific community in the eyes of the students. The sometime sink-or-swim mentality of mentor can destroy promising careers, that could have blossomed with even the slightest support at the right time. 2432321/Bald-bird-rescued-meth-house-road-recovery-feathers-grow-back.html

Mentorship, just like teaching, should be learning with the student and acknowledging their prior information and skills. This is at least partially the case in “Breaking Bad” mentor Walter White and student Jesse Pinkman. Walter, a high school chemistry teacher, enlists the help of Jessie, to cook high quality methamphetamine for making money for his family. At least in the beginning Walter teaches Jessie about the chemistry behind cooking. He also respects Jesse’s knowledge of drug dealing in their operation. The mistakes Walter makes in his teaching of Jesse are based on his selfish needs and assumptions he makes about his student’s knowledge. This is why I like to watch the interactions between them. I get to reflect on how the situation should have been dealt with, and it brings my own weaknesses to my attention. While it would be questionable to tell my future students, some of my teaching and mentoring strategies are influenced by “Breaking Bad”, I would be lying if I denied it. And bad example is an extremely effective teacher.

Nature compiled a guide for mentors in 2007. It is no wonder that mentoring relationships, be it real or fictional, are not perfect. The list of characteristics is staggering with availability to students, creating scientific community in the lab, enthusiasm, and unselfish behavior. I am lucky to have this kind of mentor as a positive example. Maybe one day the list of qualities for a good mentor seems less daunting and more doable.




Higher education for todays life after PhD

When ever I talk to relatives or friends outside academia, I get the feeling that I am considered a complete nerd incapable of any “real world thinking”. Even some employers avoid hiring PhDs because they are viewed as too theoretically oriented and too expensive. In some field this might be true. And it should not be. The higher education system should serve the community.

There are not enough positions in academia for all graduate students anyway. And all graduate students don’t desire those positions. We need to prepare students for the whole world,  not only for academia. The info graph below describes the faith of biology PhDs. If 15 and 20% of post-doctoral researchers go to tenure track or non-tenure track faculty positions, it is actually under 23% of all students who receive PhDs. We cannot afford to only cater for the 22.6% percent who will become faculty.

Offering options and softer skills needed to survive in industry or as an entrepreneur for example would make any graduate program more attractive to students.  Virginia Tech’s certificates and transformative graduate education are a great help for career planning. But we could be doing more to help future PhDs to apply their degree outside academia.

Offering instruction in “soft skills” can help students build a suitable degree for non-academic workplaces. Simple accounting can help any academic to hold the lab’s funding in order, and leadership classes will help future workers deal with other people at their work place, where ever they end up at. Some of these are already offered and just need to be marketed better for students as well as their mentors. Contacts to industry will help engineering students and biology students alike. Internships care a great option for students with the time and their adviser’s blessing to take time off their research. But mentoring is useful for everyone.

Having a great mentor can make your career. But finding a great mentor can be very tricky. Virginia Tech does a great job supporting undergraduates as they come to the university. Even new faculty can get mentoring. PhD student’s mentor should ideally be their adviser. But that adviser is embedded in academia. Every PhD student should have a mentor outside academia to offer thoughts on possible career moves outside the university system. They could be part of the PhD student’s committee, or just an extra support.

In the future, I would like to see a larger number of PhDs to find jobs outside academia with confidence that they can make it in this environment.

Faculty LOLing and Trolling

Can anyone imagine a world without Facebook on our fingertips and course materials on-line? Social media has penetrated our world via Facebook, Twitter, internet dating, chatting, and professional networking sites. It has become our front porch, cafe, and living room to converse with people in a setting we modify to match our personality and mood. What are some of the great and not-so-great aspects of these web-based tools?



Twitter goes through 500 million 140 character micro blogs or “Tweets” every day. The mission of Twitter Inc. is “to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers”. This sounds great and has been used in university classes to activate students. Professionals use it to follow interesting news in their fields, and everyone can use it to have an online presence and personal channel for connection to friends and acquaintances. I have found it useful to keep up on cutting edge science publications, that cause public conversation among scientists.

This can be used in unkind ways too. Without realizing both students and faculty can be very offensive in an extremely public and immediate environment. Teachers of a Los Alamos high school read tweets about themselves to remind students what they share on the internet can be read by anyone. This January In university of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, twitter comments on chancellor’s decision to  keep classes in session, when cold weather hit the campus, got very offensive. This was reported in Inside Higher Ed news section. It seems university students also need a remainder on how the internet works.

Professional networking sites® and many other sites have profiled themselves as professional Facebook. Indeed the mission statements of LinkedIn and Facebook are very similar.

The mission of LinkedIn is to connect the world’s professionals to enable them to be more productive and successful. To achieve our mission, we make services available through our websites, mobile applications, and developer platforms, to help you, your connections, and millions of other professionals meet, exchange ideas, learn, make deals, find opportunities or employees, work, and make decisions in a network of trusted relationships and groups.

Founded in 2004, Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

Facebook offers more personal sharing environment and LinkedIn® concentrates on the professional advantages it can offer. This sort of networking could be more comfortable for the introverts in any field. Activity within the social media is still required for it to benefit you, but you can plan and form a strategy to best present yourself. And there is a lot to plan for; Summaries, CV items, and skills.

With today’s wide variety of social networks, this one can be forgotten easily when you are working. But as soon as you need to find a new job, you wish you were more active in the networking social media. If you don’t take this seriously and make it just another Facebook page, the benefits will be non-existent and the sloppy public profile can even hurt your professional image. When our students start using these networks, they really need to make a difference between the professional site and Facebook profile. Even if it is tempting to accept all invites to connect, one should be careful what kind of professional picture is presented by choice of contacts.


wordpress-logo-stacked-rgbBoth faculty and students can benefit from blogs. They can offer a creative outlet or be a professional front for anyone. The content posted can be visible to anyone or even just the class contributing to it. The benefits are usually connected to improvement in writing skills and sense of ownership for one’s work. The need to be careful in framing blogging as student activity cannot be emphasized too much. Requirement of certain number of blogs will give you exactly that. Number of posts to get it done. And words on screen that do not engage, written by someone not interested in writing them.

The best sort of blogging is engaging to the writer and audience. An example of that are the Harvard faculty blogs. What a great way to build an online presence of the whole university and bring it all together under the institution. It can lead to professional discussions as well as offer a source for future students looking for mentors. It can also harm one’s online reputation, if care is not used on what is shared.

In the end, the greatness and the pitfalls of any social media we use as faculty or students comes down to thinking what you post and do on-line. On twitter the best advice for students would probably be the Wheaton’s law: “Don’t be a dick”. It is simple and easily understood in many contexts. As future faculty, student, teacher, or a parent, one must consider the consequences. I find it helpful to think any writing I post as a presentation to a large group of people including your co-workers, relatives, and all minorities. You don’t want to needlessly offend anyone. And since your boss is listening, you don’t want to loose your job.

Telling people to use social media responsibly is like telling them to drink responsibly. Most will do it, but there can be temptation to go overboard. Having an internet troll tweeting offensively is like listening to an obnoxious drunk…