'Seeing them succeed is incredibly rewarding'

A veteran supervisor discusses the joys, and challenges, of mentoring

Robert B. Desjardins - 15 October 2019

The best part of being an academic mentor, says physiology professor Greg Funk, is watching students become independent thinkers.

"It's that transition from when they're no longer asking you what they should do next: they're telling you what THEY want to do next," he says.

"It's when they're running their program, coming up with experimental ideas, and challenging you. Sometimes the change happens overnight - and it's very satisfying, because it lets you know you're doing your job well."

Funk, who received the 2018 Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring, has been widely praised for the care he takes of his students, and the ways he helps them build their confidence. But he stresses that he's not an expert in mentoring: "I'm not a subject-matter expert. I'm just like everybody else, trying to work my way through the process."

We sat down last month to discuss that work, and the joys and challenges it entails. The following is a summary of our talk, edited for length and clarity.

Let's start with a big-picture question: what makes a good mentor-mentee relationship?

I think one of the most valuable things in fostering a healthy relationship is mutual respect. Expectations have to be fully understood on both sides, and there has to be open communication. So when trainees are not getting everything they need, they feel able to come and discuss things with me, and I can do the same back.

It's also really important that students gain empowerment and independence as soon as possible. With those things comes a sense of ownership. The student understands that their project is their own, so they feel like they're making a contribution, and they understand the significance of the contribution.

How do you set the stage to achieve these goals?

One of the first things I do with new students is to have a discussion about how the relationship needs to work - the free flow of information back and forth, the need to be respectful of each other. Then we develop a plan based on what their goals are and what they want to get out of their degree.

This is a preliminary plan, right? And it differs from student to student?

Very much so. A lot of graduate students don't yet have a clear idea what they want. They're still exploring whether research is a career option that they want to pursue. The conversation typically evolves over the course of a program, because their goals change over time; during that time you also learn about their aptitudes and what they're capable of. Laying out plans is a very individualized process.

In broad terms, what does a plan look like?

If they're new, I don't assign students a project up-front. They usually start with some training, over a month or two, to learn the methodology and techniques. Then I'll get them to do experiments to help finish off a small study that they'll be helping somebody else out with, and they start to see what's going on in the lab. Finally, I get them involved in developing their own research question and the project itself.

So there's scaffolding at the beginning, helping students to grow into their roles?

Yes. The goal, as I said, is to get them independent and operating on their own as quickly as possible. One of the best things about science is freedom and independence. You're not reliant on anyone else - there's help if you need it, but there's a lot of motivation and satisfaction that comes from being able to contribute independently.

How do you advise students about dealing with adversity in their programs?

Here too it depends on the individual. You have to learn how they respond to many things - the stressors, but also how each student handles feedback. Some can take it straight on - just very up-front. You can push them really hard and that's how they perform best. For others you need to take a more gentle approach. They need much more support and encouragement.

What do you say to help them deal with challenges?

The big thing is to convince them that they can trust the process. Graduate school, all research, is about failing repeatedly. I tell them that it's sort of like fishing. You spend most of your time casting and not getting anything, but every now and again you get something and it's very exciting. Then it'll be days, days, days without anything, and then you'll have another breakthrough. It's intermittent positive reinforcement - you have to be able to survive on that.

Do you have this conversation with many of your grad students?

All of them. In the first year, there's a lot of energy, especially for PhDs, because it's a new program. In the second year, they start to recognize the enormity of what's ahead of them. The enthusiasm and novelty has worn off a little bit. They're really into the project, but that means they are having challenges because they're having to develop new stuff. They might have a few successes, but there are more failures than successes.

Are there any differences in terms of how you mentor international students?

I've probably had more international graduate students than local. It depends on the individual, but it's also cultural, in terms of the [academic] hierarchy in some cultures being very established and very entrenched. So challenging a professor or saying "I disagree with that" can be very difficult for some students, and that, I think, is the biggest challenge - breaking the barrier so that students feel comfortable challenging me.

How do you work with international students to reduce that sense of hierarchy?

We give them a lot of support when they first arrive - arrange for accommodation, pick them up at the airport. It's part of the culture in the lab that everyone works hard to make everyone feel comfortable. It's just regular conversations and trying to reinforce that we don't operate based on your paper qualifications - it's what you bring to the lab. Everyone is treated the same, as much as possible.

For many grad students, the writing process - and especially thesis-writing - is especially stressful. How do you handle that as a mentor?

That's one of the toughest parts: providing instruction and experience with writing. Most undergraduate programs don't assign many papers, so the experience and practice with scientific writing is minimal. I'm notorious for my red pen. As students proceed through their program, they have a number of opportunities to write - papers, abstracts, applications, and thesis chapters. In each case, they write first drafts, and we go back and forth. It takes a lot of time to become precise and succinct; and the learning only comes through that back-and-forth exchange.

With all of this in mind, what do you like most about being a graduate supervisor?

It's the energy you get from interacting with young, bright, energetic people. Their perspective is different. It keeps you young - in your head, anyway. I was told by colleagues in my first year as a supervisor that I was too involved with my students; that I should pull back and and maintain a professional distance. I tried that for a month or two - but it was no fun, so I abandoned that approach. I know where virtually all of my former trainees are - what they're doing, what their careers are. These are lifelong relationships, and seeing them succeed is incredibly rewarding.

What does it mean to you to be recognized for your work as a mentor, both by Killam and by your peers?

When I finally close the doors to my research laboratory, I have little doubt that my greatest contribution to science will be the trainees I leave behind. It is therefore deeply satisfying to have the effort I have invested in this regard officially recognized and valued. This award has special personal significance because the Killam Family and the programs that evolved from their generosity have been very important in my career. I was a Killam Fellow (1987-89) as a PhD student at UBC. In addition, my PhD supervisor at UBC, Professor (Emeritus) W.K. Milsom, received the Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring about 14 years ago. He was and is an outstanding mentor, and this award offers some reassurance that my efforts to match his example were not entirely in vain.

Gregory D. Funk is Professor of Physiology in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. His 2018 Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring was made possible by the Killam Trusts, which are among Canada's largest and most prestigious endowments for scholarly activities. For more on the important role of the Killam bequest at the University of Alberta, see this page.

For more on Prof. Funk's approach to mentoring, see thesestories from the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.