A conversation with Naoko Tanese, PhD, associate dean for biomedical sciences and director of NYU School of Medicine’s Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, and Mark R. Philips, MD, director of the MD/PhD Program, on how they’re preparing program graduates to be leaders in science and medicine.
How does NYU School of Medicine’s Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences identify mutual connections and help match mentees with research mentors?
Dr. Tanese: It’s an ongoing process that starts at the very beginning. From the time that students are selected and interviewed by faculty, we look at their research interests and make sure that we have mentors in those areas with whom they can work. And I think it’s helpful to the students that we have an open program, which means that they don’t have to necessarily choose the area for their PhD thesis right away. Once they’re here, students rotate through different labs on a trial basis. Doctoral students typically do three rotations and MD/PhD students do two. At the end of the rotations, they can then choose a faculty mentor in the PhD training program. They can be open-minded and sometimes they’re exposed for the first time to research areas that they can become interested in and excited about.
Dr. Philips: The key is to give students as much exposure to faculty as possible. We have created many opportunities over the years for unassigned students to meet new faculty: open houses, chalk talks, lunches, and retreats where faculty are invited to give seminars and mingle with students.
What are the essential ingredients of a successful mentor-mentee relationship?
Dr. Philips: Trust, enthusiasm, and common goals. Trust is the student trusting the mentor to bring him or her along a path of success and independence, and the mentor trusting the student to fully commit to their research. Enthusiasm in science matters, too. Good science is never boring, and I think there can and should be an equal level of excitement from both mentor and mentee. And then there are common goals: it’s in both the student’s and the mentor’s interests to produce a successful scientist.
Dr. Tanese: When I follow a mentor–mentee pair over several years, and find tremendous improvement in a mentee who’s gained a lot of confidence, independence, and critical thinking skills, I see that as a successful relationship where the mentor truly made a difference in the training of the mentee. Sometimes, the student will do an experiment that the thesis advisor initially said wasn’t going to work, and that experiment ends up being transformative and changing the direction of the lab. There was trust—the mentee thought it was a good idea and convinced the mentor that it was worth trying. That kind of outcome is really an indication of a successful mentor–mentee relationship.
How does mentorship in science and medicine differ from other professional fields?
Dr. Philips: Science and academic medicine can be more hierarchical and proscribed than other professions and, therefore, the mentoring that I can offer a physician-scientist in training can differ from that offered in other professions. For the MD/PhD students that I direct, there’s a tried-and-true pathway to an end result. There often is a linear progression: from medical and graduate school to a clinical residency and fellowship combined with scientific postdoc to independence. This permits me to have a much more concrete vision about where I want to help them go and where I think they want me to help them go.
Dr. Tanese: I would also say that this relationship is long lasting. It continues after graduate school or a postdoctoral fellowship in the sense that we all stay in touch. Scientific communities are surprisingly small and interconnected.
A postdoc who mentored me when I was a graduate student is on faculty at NYU Langone. We now work together as colleagues. As trainees advance, they become part of the same community.
Dr. Philips: There isn’t a single successful trainee I’ve had with whom I do not keep in touch. Like Naoko, one of them has come back and has the lab next to mine.
How are you positioning program graduates to play key roles in translating biomedical research to clinical interventions?
Dr. Philips: Physician–scientists are perfectly suited for bridging the gap between bench and bedside. It’s about intermingling a knowledge of everything one learns in medical school with specialized scientific training, acumen, curiosity and creativity.
This is exactly the purpose of the MD/PhD training program.
Dr. Tanese: We are increasing the number of training tracks in the PhD program to attract more students interested in pursuing careers that require working with big data. NYU School of Medicine, meanwhile, is recruiting faculty and establishing more collaborations with NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering.
That’s another area where there’s an obvious connection with translational medicine in terms of creating devices or developing strategies to help detect diseases or deliver drugs. Quantitative biology is a big area in which we’ve added new training tracks. As our students complete their PhDs, some are interested in entrepreneurship, and that’s an area we’re expanding through the Biomedical Entrepreneurship Program organized by NYU Langone’s Technology Ventures and Partnerships. The idea is to provide training to our students and postdocs on how to commercialize discoveries and bring their ideas to the clinic.