Good Mentorship, Passover and “Let my people go!”

Several days ago I had scheduled a lab lunch with my group, where I was supposed to treat everyone to Sushi in honor of a paper that one of my students recently had accepted. However, someone was sick, and we had to postpone. So I found myself in the unusual situation of not having brought my own lunch, which I like to eat in front of the computer screen. So off it was to the cafeteria.

As I put together a salad from the salad bar, I was amused to see that beside the rolls and croissants was a tray full of Matzah–that bland and untasty form of unleavened bread that Jews typically eat on Passover. Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, and when I lived in Israel I would drive to nearby Arab villages for fresh Pita–or barring that, actually bake the unavailable stuff in my own oven.

While I am clearly a member of the tribe described by Cromercrox recently–(to make it perfectly clear, I am NOT a Norwich fan…)–I am certainly not a practicing or believing member. Nonetheless, in my own atheistic, secular and somewhat anti-social fashion, I do possess a sense of belonging. And I followed Sarah Palin’s “Blood Libel” comment in the wake of the Giffords shooting with some serious concerns.

Passover, however, with its legend, folklore and myths, does contain a pretty strong message–summed up in the plea to the Egyptian Pharaoh to “Let my people go!”

This phrase has become extremely well used in modern history, with countless examples of peoples crying out to be freed: the African American slaves, the blacks in South Africa during the apartheid years, jailed political prisoners and so on. However, it has not typically been associated with science labs, Ph.D. students and post-doctoral researchers.

While I feel awkward boasting about my own achievements, I see little recourse this time–added to the fact that this particular achievement really DOES mean a lot to me: this past week I was awarded the University of Nebraska Medical School’s “Outstanding Mentor of Graduate Students Award“. Aside from the pride at being nominated by former students and selected from a large pool of nominees (and being the faculty member at the earliest stage of his/her career to receive this honor), this caused me to reflect a good deal about the meaning of mentorship.

The summary of my philosophy of mentorship is described in the brief and edited interview that I had. But I would like to add the important Passover message of “Let My People Go!”

It seems that this is frequently the root of conflict between mentor and student, or mentor and postdoc. Ordinarily, the goals of the student and postdoc mesh with those of the mentor. However, some mentors see their goal as extracting every last bit of work from the lab trainees, disregarding their interests entirely. At the same time, the trainee wants and needs to go forward with his/her career. An egregious mentor will push the student or postdoc on and on, in an endless cycle, using his/her power over the situation abusively. In the US, this can frequently end in Ph.D. degrees that take 7 or 8 years to attain, and postdoctoral fellowships that go on to infinity.

“Just need to finish up a few more experiments, and then we can publish a bunch of papers. You don’t want to quit now when all the credit is there for you, just around the next bend?”

Ever hear that phrase, or something similar?

Yes, a Ph.D. student needs to complete a body of work, and yes, a postdoc needs to publish papers for career advancement. But generally speaking, if it doesn’t happen in the first 4-5 years, it ain’t gonna happen.

So I say –listen to the student and postdoc who are whispering, or even imagining those words: “Let My People Go!”

And have a great spring, Easter, Passover or whatever you may or may not choose to celebrate.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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11 Responses to Good Mentorship, Passover and “Let my people go!”

  1. cromercrox says:

    Great post, Steve. And congratulations on your award. The ‘Let My People Go!’ message does seem singularly appropriate to mentorship. One of the skills of mentorship is learning how and when to loosen the apron strings, allowing your wards to learn from their own mistakes.

    And I quite like matzot. Sure, on their own they taste of cardboard, but with some cream cheese, lox, and a grind of pepper. Bootiful.

    On quite another matter, in shul some months past the rabbi read a portion in which the Israelites were showered with manna from heaven. The phrase ‘yom yom’ occurred. The rabbi told me later that this meant something like ‘the day after tomorrow’ or some such, but I preferred my own interpretation, that it was the sound made by the Israelites on the consumption of said heavenly repast.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      “they taste of cardboard”? I’ve eaten cardboard boxes that taste like gourmet food compared to matzah…

      “the rabbi read a portion in which the Israelites were showered with manna from heaven”
      It’s intriguing that you wrote that sentence, because “portion” in Hebrew is literally translated as “manna”, as in “Give me a manna of falafel”.

      As for yom yom (really best translated as “daily”), it could also mean you like sweet potatoes (yam yam, yum yum).

  2. David Lee says:

    The famous phrase has now evolved in Israel to: “Let my people come back….”

    • Steve Caplan says:

      If you are referring to the “Brain Drain” from Israel, the gov’t will need to do a lot more for education (schools and higher education) and the arts and sciences before that will happen…

  3. ricardipus says:

    I am even more non-observant of Jewish customs than you are (if that’s possible), but I will say this: I have eaten matzah, and it is not delicious.

    Also, well done you! Congrats on the award.

    Also also – great post. I love how you tie disparate elements together so neatly. 🙂

    • Steve Caplan says:

      If you eat matzah, I suggest that you order an extra batch of Henry’s delightful evolution-enhanced pellets (see his Blog “Regular”)…

      Thanks for the kind words. I need people like you to review my novel and grants!

      • ricardipus says:

        Ewww (regarding evo-pellets).

        I’ll review your novel over at http://www.scienceboard.net once I’ve finished reading it, no problem. I’ll probably put a book review in our internal lab newsletter here too… hm, seems I promised Jenny to do the same so maybe she’s first. 😉

        Also planning a “what am I reading” lazy-blog-post over at my other haunt, which will feature you. 🙂

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Congrats on the award, Steve!

  5. Frank says:

    Congratulations on the award. I like your three conerstones of mentoring – they sound pretty much like the essence of good parenting too.

    In some of its promotional literature our graduate student office has started using the phrase ’build, grow and help them go’ which made me squirm the first time I read it. I prefer your more poetic version!

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    Thanks, Frank. As for that motto–hmm, sounds suspiciously like something George W the son would say…

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