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.
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.