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Stanford University School of Medicine

On mentorship, and how to pay it forward

microbe_mentoring_portraitWhen emeritus professor of microbiology and immunology Stanley Falkow, PhD, received the National Medal of Science in May, the White House didn't just laud his scholarship, as it did for the other five awardees. The citation also singled him out for "inspiring mentorship that created the field of molecular microbial pathogenesis."

Indeed, Falkow is both a legendary microbe hunter and a legendary mentor. At Stanford Medicine alone, three faculty members -- Manuel Amieva, MD, PhD, Denise Monack, PhD, and David Relman, MD -- were once doctoral students or postdocs in his lab.

I talked with Falkow and Monack for the most recent issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, which is all about relationships. Their mentoring relationship goes back to 1984, when Monack, fresh from her undergraduate studies at UC-Davis, joined Falkow's lab as a technician. She earned her PhD in 2002 and is now professor of microbiology and immunology.

Our conversations were wide-ranging; we touched on everything from pep talks to women in science to how Falkow introduced Monack to single-malt scotch. Falkow told me about mentoring mistakes he made in the early part of his career, and what he has learned from them:

You never say, "If I were you I would," because you're going to give bad advice. And so I decided the best thing to do was to just listen. And in the years when I listened, I listened very carefully to what my students said and then I told them to do what they said they wanted to do. And they usually thought I was very wise.

What was perhaps most revealing, though, was Falkow's reaction to being asked to talk about mentorship in the first place. He immediately deflected attention from himself. "Denise," he said, "is a very good mentor."

That, Monack said, might have something to do with learning from one of the best: "I do think I've modeled my managing style after Stanley's, and it clearly has worked for him. I think it's best to allow people to be creative on their own. I give them a lot of freedom, but I'm not totally hands-off. I monitor what they're doing, and if they're struggling, I help them. You get the best out of people when you make it clear that you trust them and you respect them."

Previously: Ties that heal: Stanford Medicine magazine examines relationships, How mentorship shaped a Stanford surgeon's 30 years of liver transplants, Advice for young docs from psychiatrist David Spiegel: Find a mentor and pursue your passion and From the honeymoon to the split: The evolving relationship between graduate school mentors and mentees
Photo by Timothy Archibald




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