Mentors are often highlighted as being crucial to success. People who look out for you, advise you when you’re feeling confused or lost, who point you towards opportunities you might otherwise have missed and who are there to offer encouragement whenever the going gets tough. Mentoring is typically a long-term relationship, often going on throughout one’s career even if the nature of the interaction changes as the apparent distance in seniority diminishes with time. I know who my two key mentors in my life are, but other individuals have played their part at different stages. And these parts, even if transient, can – as they were in my case – be highly significant for long term survival.
These people may be ones you only encounter once or twice. Perhaps at a conference where they may stimulate some new train of thought out of which fertile research develops, or introduce you to some job opportunity or another colleague who becomes a valued collaborator. In my case, I once met a complete stranger travelling to New York on a Greyhound bus who turned out to be an academic from another institution full of wise words to help me get through a tricky situation I found myself in. They may be colleagues who you rarely interact with but who contact you with information that is just what you need or, again, tell you about job opportunities that they happen to know about and you don’t. The importance of interactions with these people may not have the depth and duration of a mentoring relationship, but matter they do. A single action can change the course of one’s life and you should not forget what you owe them.
Here I’d like to pay tribute to Jack (Lord) Lewis, the founding Warden of my current college, Robinson, as one of the people who played a significant role at a crucial stage in my life. Jack died a couple of weeks ago, aged 86. He was an eminent inorganic chemist, but it is not his chemistry I want to discuss. When Robinson College was first founded he took the helm, ensuring its successful completion and steering it through the early years when statutes and traditions had to be set up. By the time I joined the college in 1981 it seemed stable and settled, even if the fellowship was still small. Notable was the fact that in these early years there were several female STEM fellows; indeed it is my belief that Robinson cornered just about all the female STEM lecturers in the university in the early 1980’s, although I can’t explicitly prove that statement. (That probably meant 3-4 of us, to put things in context. It is perhaps hard to appreciate that, however unsatisfactory the current situation may be, go back 30 years and it was unimaginably different and worse.) I was sure at the time that Jack quite deliberately tried to attract the female lecturers to the college and, because the college was itself young and very aware of its position as the only undergraduate college to be founded as a mixed college, it definitely was an attractive and unstuffy place to join.
So what was it that, for me personally, Jack did that played such an important part in my life? To explain that I should point out that a common requirement colleges ask of their fellows is that they teach (typically) six hours a week of small group supervisions. Of course six hours contact time means a lot more than that by the time you’ve added in the amount of preparation and marking time required, which is particularly heavy in the first year a new year is taught. I was happy to do this teaching when I joined the college: teaching is such a good way to get to grips with a subject, to interact strongly with the students. I believe this small group teaching is a real highlight of collegiate Cambridge.
However, once pregnant I realised I had to rethink things. Life was going to be hard enough without those extra 6 hours on top of my departmental duties (of lecturing, running labs and of course running a research group)– and it’s the department that pays the basic salary not the college. (This college teaching can be an issue for many young parents.) So I went to see Jack and offered my resignation from the fellowship so that I could be relieved of this teaching. He was having none of it and told me I could be released from my teaching until such time as all the children I went on to have were at school. It was an amazing and thoughtful response. It gave me something I hadn’t even thought to ask for. It was also of course, thinking about the long term. He wanted to keep me attached to the college in the hope that ultimately I would be of use to them again in some form or other.
And that’s the point. That off-the-cuff decision on Jack’s part kept me alive as a college fellow. Now for other individuals in other circumstances what matters at any given time may be very different. But that support, that ability to think beyond the today to the long game means that someone who might otherwise be lost – to science completely or to a particular institution or role – can live to fight another day.
So, remember it isn’t just mentors – or mentoring – that matters. Being thoughtful can obviously come in many guises but we should all be looking out for ways of helping those we are in a position to support. Even as a PhD student or postdoc, investing some time in the work experience kid from the local comprehensive may (and you may not ever know this of course) transform that person’s life by encouraging them to stick with science. Or sharing your excitement about research with the undergraduate doing a short project alongside you in the lab may give that person a grasp of what research is all about that they would fail to grasp from their own limited opportunities. It isn’t just the major deeds that matter or those done by influential people at the top of the pile; everyone may find an opportunity in their daily interactions to be of benefit to others. And we should all keep an eye out for when that moment arises.
So, thank you Jack. RIP.