How Mentorship Looks Different in the Sciences

A conversation with two immunologists about the “little digressions” that shape their research and careers

Edgar Su / Reuters

Every day, scientists pour their energy and effort into work that might prove to be life-changing, or a complete disappointment. It is a dynamic that can be difficult to sustain. And encouraging new scientists, even when the payoff of research might remain elusive for years, requires a specific type of guidance and encouragement.

Allison Powell found that type of guidance in Russell Cruz, an immunologist who trains cells to fight cancer and other opportunistic diseases. Powell’s work with Cruz encouraged her not just to continue working in the field, but also put her on her current path, pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences. For The Atlantic’s series exploring mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with the two researchers about finding one’s path within a profession, handling imperfection, and the value of good mentorship in science.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

B.R.J. O’Donnell: You are building a mentorship relationship in a field where it can be hard to measure progress. Does that make it hard to tell whether your mentee is doing well, or if you’re teaching the right things?

Russell Cruz: Allison's not pressured to be this 4.0 mentee, because there isn't a 4.0—there is no external measure. In science, it's more of an apprenticeship feel.

Allison Powell: If you think about ballet, or something like that, you are striving to perfect someone else's work, and medicine is the same way—you are taking tests to prove that you can do what someone else has done. Translational biology, what we do, isn’t really like that at all, because no one has done this before. I think one of the things that Russell always says is that the end goal of my Ph.D. is for me to know more about my little niche than he, or anyone else, does. So I don't think there is that same sense that you're striving to mimic what someone else has accomplished. You're just trying to find the answers to your questions.

O’Donnell: What questions are you trying to answer in the lab at the moment?

Cruz: We work on translational research, which means that we take other people's mind-boggling discoveries, and try and see how we can apply them. My lab is focused on using immune cells to fight cancer, especially the ones that are resistant to all the standard therapies. As the years go by, there are more and more tools available for us to tinker with these cells, and we can give them functions that haven't been there before.

O’Donnell: Allison, how did you decide to pursue a Ph.D.?

Powell: I think one of the things that really helped me when I started as a lab tech was that I came in thinking, "I'm interested in this field, but I don't know where I fit." And as I thought, "Maybe I'll be interested in the regulatory side of things," all of a sudden, regulatory meetings would show up on my calendar. Russell would say, "Well, come to these meetings with me.” What he was saying was, “Let's figure out where you fit." And through that process I realized that my end goal was to work at the intersection of science and its clinical application, and that a Ph.D. is how I get there.

Powell and Cruz working in a lab (Image courtesy of Powell and Cruz)

O’Donnell: How much has the field changed since you were at the point in your career when you were starting your own Ph.D.?

Cruz: It's definitely changed a lot. I think for immunology and immunotherapy in particular, we have had more interactions with other fields, like nanotechnology. There are definitely better tools that have been developed since the time I started. So now everyone’s favorite tool is 3-D printing.

O’Donnell: Allison, can you tell me more about using 3-D printing for your research on immune responses to cancer?

Powell: One of my projects looks at medulloblastoma. And there is not a good mouse model for the human microenvironment of that brain cancer, so we were trying to make our own model of it using 3-D printing. We were 3-D printing tumor cells into spheres and trying to mimic the interactions that our therapies would have. It was a really neat collaboration, but it was way out of our realm of comfort—definitely an interesting side project.

Cruz: It was all curiosity. You know, Allison is always up for these challenges. I think that's how a lot of it works. I keep telling Allison: Sometimes, some major advances have been made by these little side directions that aren't on the main route. So as long as both of us are keeping on track, then with little digressions we should be okay.

Powell: Or it becomes a 10-year Ph.D.

Cruz: Exactly!

O’Donnell: Russell, what are the obstacles that Allison might be able to sidestep as a result of learning from you?

Cruz: I can look back and say, "Oh, I should have done this in grad school, or I should have done that." So, indirectly, mentorship is a way of seeing how a more perfect version of your own experiences would play out—you can say, "I tried that, but actually this worked better."

I want her to finish her Ph.D. four years from now, and I say that because, looking back, if you can shorten your training time, the sooner you can get to the heart of the work. That is something I would want her to learn from me, but if she comes up with something unexpected, I'll be so excited that I'll forget everything I just told you now.

O’Donnell: So ideally, what path does your mentorship take?

Cruz: What I want to do is provide Allison with a guide for the journey that she is taking; someone to ask questions, who will listen to the failed experiments and all the exciting ideas. Someone to bounce arguments back and forth with, and someone that she can rely on to be her cheerleader. She's my first grad student, so this is my start, too. Part of the goal is for me, by the end of three years or so, to be learning from her.