Celebrating National Mentoring Month

By Dr. Janine A. Clayton

I am often asked the following question: "What’s your advice to young women scientists looking to advance their careers?"

Looking back on my experience over the years, one of the most important pieces of advice I can give someone is to seek mentors. I believe that surrounding yourself with supportive people is paramount for professional growth and advancement.

I also emphasize having more than one mentor, as different mentors can help you at different times during your professional career. Mentors can assist in navigating the deep waters of your career and act as a sounding board for major decisions. They can also help open doors to new opportunities.

I should acknowledge that many people have rallied behind me over the years, for which I’m grateful. I’ve spoken about Vivian Pinn, M.D., in the past as one of my key mentors, but I’d also like to mention two others: Marcia Carney, M.D., and Claude Cowan, M.D., M.P.H.

Dr. Marcia Carney  earned her medical degree from the Weill Medical College of Cornell University. She completed her fellowship at the University of Chicago focusing on retinal surgery and vitreous diseases. She is currently an ophthalmologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital.

Dr. Carney and I met while I was a resident at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine. I remember her being a very smart, no-nonsense physician. She was confident in the operating room and always in command. I learned a lot from Dr. Carney, especially on how to conduct yourself as an ophthalmic surgeon. She is a great role model and continues to be an advisor.

Dr. Claude Cowan  was the chief of ophthalmology when I was a student at the Howard University College of Medicine. He is a practicing retina specialist at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC, and a board member of the American Board of Ophthalmology.

Dr. Cowan introduced me to ophthalmology research through a project funded by The Commonwealth Fund. The project offered me an important opportunity as a young scientist to enter the research field. All throughout, Dr. Cowan had a steady hand in guiding me through the travails of research. I remember Dr. Cowan as always being calm and patient, and always willing to take the time to teach me. He is an excellent coach and consummate teacher.

My mentors helped me learn key aspects of medicine, surgery, and research, and assisted me as I navigated my career path. Over time, however, they became much more than teachers and career advisors. They became role models, sponsors, champions, and sometimes even friends. A good mentor can inspire, be supportive, and instill confidence in your abilities.

At ORWH, we have published factsheets for both mentors and mentees and various other resources, all of which are available on our Women in Biomedical Careers website. For mentees, I suggest taking a look at the toolkit   (PDF) developed by the Group of Women in Medicine and Science (GWIMS). For mentors, I would suggest referring to Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering , which was published by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

I would also recommend taking a look at the National Research Mentoring Network , a 5,000-member network of mentors and mentees from all biomedical disciplines. Funded through an award by NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, it offers mentoring opportunities for undergraduates, graduates, postdocs, faculty, and researchers. More resources on mentoring can be found at NIH’s Office of Intramural Training & Education.

I’d like to close by thanking all the mentors I’ve been privileged to have, such as Drs. Carney and Cowan, for their support. National Mentoring Month is a good opportunity to reach out and thank those who helped us along the way. And if you are not mentoring someone now, I highly recommend it.