Illuminating the path to research success

Mentoring is a collaborative effort, says U of A researcher Gregory Funk, recipient of the 2018 Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring

Kirsten Bauer - 03 August 2018

Over a career spanning more than 30 years, Gregory Funk has mentored students from Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Turkey, the United States and Canada. Though he takes little credit for his students' successes, the Women and Children's Health Research Institute (WCHRI) researcher and Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute (NMHI) member has undoubtedly been an invaluable guide for his students. A case in point, his success as a mentor was recognized this spring with the 2018 Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring.

With a PhD in zoology from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the Department of Physiology professor studies the neurological processes of breathing, to improve the long-term health of infants with central nervous system disorders, including premature babies and those with sleep apnea.

As a passionate researcher, Funk says inviting trainees to participate in the research process and allowing them to take ownership over their role gets them personally invested in the science, so they can begin to ask their own questions.

"A lot of students have come through the lab, most of whom I'm still in contact with, and it's very rewarding to see that you actually made a difference in someone's career path," Funk said. "It's almost like a light bulb going on-watching them transition from someone who's asking me what they should do, to them telling me what they would like to do next."

Funk notes that the distinction between teaching, supervising and mentoring is an important one. Classroom teaching involves sharing knowledge, but sometimes lacks the one-on-one interaction required in a supervisory role, which involves helping trainees stay on task. Mentoring, Funk says, goes a step further and involves building working relationships that can last decades.

"Whether they're honours students, graduate students or postdocs, mentoring means giving trainees the hard and soft skills that they need to get where they want to go. It's about mutual respect and figuring out what they want and how to help them get there."

The award marks the second time Funk has been recognized by the Killam Trusts, having previously received the Izaak Walton Killam Graduate Scholarship as a PhD student. The Killam Award for Excellence in Mentoring was also given to his PhD supervisor, W.K. Milsom at UBC, who continues to have a significant impact on Funk's career-making the honour especially meaningful.

The Killam Trusts are among Canada's largest and most prestigious endowments for scholarly activities, providing more than $60 million to the University of Alberta and $400 million across the country to approximately 7,000 laureates since they were established in 1965.

Joining Funk among the 2018 honorees are Jason Acker, professor of Laboratory Medicine & Pathology and recipient of a Killam Professorship, and graduate students Lindsay Blackstock, Laboratory Medicine & Pathology; Maryam Kebbe, Department of Pediatrics; Cody Lewis, Department of Oncology and Jenna-Lynn Senger, Department of Surgery, who all received the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Prize.

Advice for budding scholars

Understanding mentor-mentee relationships can be a challenge for some graduate students. Funk has tips for learners looking to build a better relationship with an academic mentor, including building a mutual respect, fostering open communication and not being afraid to express an opinion-even if it means disagreeing.

"It's important to realize that this is not an employee-employer relationship," Funk says. "It is more like an apprenticeship. Trainees are in the laboratory to acquire a set of skills necessary for transition to independence. The mentor's responsibility is to ensure that these skills are learned. He or she is not your adversary-your success is also your mentor's success so, in the vast majority of cases, they will have your best interests in mind."

For those learners hoping to move on to academic careers, Funk also advises they take the opinions of naysayers with a grain of salt.

"There is a lot of fear out there about finding jobs in research. I encourage students to realize that it's still a really fabulous career path, with a lot of benefits," Funk said. "A common fear is the statistic that only 15 to 18 per cent of PhDs are going to get a faculty position, which terrifies people. But that's based on the supposition that it used to be 100 per cent, which it was not. Thirty years ago, the rate was about 25 per cent, so it's lower, but it's not like it's dropped from 100 to 15 per cent. It's still a challenge, but there are great opportunities out there. Every trainee from my lab who wanted a tenure track position now has one, so just enjoy your graduate career because if it's done right, it can be spectacular."

(Gregory Funk and fellow researchers sharing WCHRI lab space.. Photo courtesy of WCHRI).