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National Mentoring Month: A Q&A with Arlan Richardson

Monday, January 31, 2022

FASEB DEAI Committee member Holly Brown-Berg, PhD, spoke with Arlan Richardson, PhD, who is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and director of the Oklahoma Nathan Shock Aging Center, about the importance of mentoring. Richardson is a member of the American Aging Association (AGE), a FASEB member society. At the 2022 AGE annual meeting, Richardson will receive the inaugural Exceptional Mentoring Award in Aging. He has had a major influence on the field of aging, not only through his research and service to aging but especially through his thoughtful mentoring and attention to the training of the next generation of scientists.

Mentorship can make a lasting impact on someone’s life. Can you share the impact your mentoring experiences had on your life—good or bad?
I did not have a particularly good experience as a graduate student because my PhD advisor/mentor had a rather strange personality and seldom had anything good to say about research. The best thing he would say was, “Finally you got something to work.” However, I found later that he felt I was a very good grad student, and he was just not a very expressive person. From this experience, I felt it was always important to tell my students/fellows how good they were doing and not to just criticize them when improvement was needed. In contrast to my PhD advisor, my postdoc advisor/mentor was much more caring and not just interested in what I was doing in the lab but what was going on with my wife and family. I have tried to mirror this trait and ask my lab personnel about their families and what they are doing, etc.   

Can you share tips to help those who are beginning their mentoring journey? What makes a good mentor and mentee? 
Richardson: I feel one of the most important aspects of mentoring a graduate student is to find their strength and design a project that fits their strength, so they are both productive and successful. For example, I had a very smart student who had poor hands; he had a hell of a time getting a western blot to work. However, he had great computer skills. So, I switched his project to analyzing microarrays; he did a terrific job and had four first author papers.  

What are some pitfalls to avoid in a mentoring relationship?
Richardson: This maybe something specific to me. However, I feel you should be flexible on the career path they pursue. I know many faculty think that the students should go into academia. I feel that you need to let the students find what is best for them but, at the same time, I think you need encourage them to shoot for their dreams. It is a delicate balance. I have grad students who are chairs of academic departments and others who decided after they got their doctorate, they did not want to do research and are now working in law firms and loving it. The key is to help the students find an area that they can be successful in. 
What is your advice for the next generation of scientists? 
Richardson: For those who are going into academia, I would say develop a thick skin because you will constantly be receiving criticism for your grants or publications. I always tell my students/junior faculty when talking about grantsmanship that the key to success is not how smart you are or how good your ideas are, but persistence.  Everyone, even the leaders in an area, get their grants turned down and manuscripts rejected. The successful individuals are those who keep applying and submitting their research for publication.