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Mentoring, suicide and Harvard

Karen Lona Allendoerfer ravena at alumni.Princeton.EDU
Wed Dec 16 09:38:44 EST 1998

On 9 Dec 1998, S L Forsburg wrote:

> There was an article about this tragedy in the NYTimes
> Sunday Magazine on 28th November.  Did anyone else read this?

Yes.  It was moving.


> biologists suffer the same sort of crises of confidence where our sense
> of our self-worth is completely wrapped up in how well our experiments
> are going. ( I find that explaining the degree of my
> self-identification with  the research problem to a non-scientist
> is just about impossible.)

I really hear you there.  Although given how many blind alleys and dead
ends I've run into in my own research, it's become a difficult and
hard-earned survival technique of mine to consciously dissociate my
self-identification/self-esteem from my research problems. 

I think we all struggle with this, though.  A colleague of mine just this
week expressed the desire to throw some cultures out the window because
they still weren't working.  I could empathize--but the fact is, she and I
need to get those cultures to work, and the window isn't going to help. 

I think the person who wrote that you should be working on a few different
things at once had excellent advice.  The problem can come when one of them
takes a huge amount of time so that you just can't do anything else, or
when someone else thinks one of them is superfluous.

 It's not that I can't take
> criticism, it's just that on occasion, it would be nice to hear "good
> job" when something goes well.  Instead, I find people are great at finding
> clouds over every silver lining.  (Paper got published?  It's in the wrong
> journal.  Grant got funded?  Not enough money.  Interesting result?
> Probably an artifact. Invited to a meeting?  Never heard of it....)
> So, I try to give encouraging comments to my students and
> postdocs regardless of how their experiments are doing.  But is that
> enough?

I think it's great.  You come across on this group at least as a caring and
involved mentor, someone whom students would be thrilled to work for (at
least after graduate school is over, and they've gotten some perspective

Someone told me once that there comes a point in every grad student's
thesis where they feel like they hate their advisor.  I haven't found this
to be universally true, but true often enough.  Maybe it's like adolescence
. . .and if the advisor has actually been good and done his/her job well,
then the student grows out of it.  Although I guess that can be pretty hard
to take when you're in the middle of it.  I would bet though, that if your
students have issues, they don't have to do with you, per se.  

One thing that surprised me a bit about the article was the way the student
was described, not just as being alienated from his advisor, but also from
his peers.  One of his peers was on a committee working on the very same
reforms that he wanted.  And she didn't even know what was bothering him. 
He didn't reach out.  He didn't seem to want people to see that he was
vulnerable (my interpretation).  Some of the details in the article painted
him as controlling, particular, and perfectionist in his personal life,
qualities that might have made it difficult for him to take scientific
"failure" in stride.  How much could or should the university have been
able to do about that?

While I think this case was a tragedy, I was less convinced that this
particular case had been a preventable one after I was done reading the
article, than I had been when I started it.  There are individual factors
as well as communal factors.  I find myself wondering how much a university
can be expected to do.  Clearly there's a lot of room for improvement on
the university's side, but would those improvements have made a difference
for this student?  For all troubled students?  

Since this is a thread about mentoring, I would just like to add my 2 cents
about good and bad mentoring that I've seen.  One echo of bad mentoring
that this article brought up was the notion that science is more important
than people.  Some scientists seem to have their eyes on, not just the
prize, but on some abstract concepts of truth, beauty, and knowledge in
which there is little room for messy human feelings.  There was a comment
in the article that the advisor discouraged people from listening to
anything but classical music in the lab.  Now, I love classical music (and
have played classical violin on and off for almost 25 years), and I do
listen to it in the lab, sometimes, but there are times too when I just
want to crank the Ramones (I used to listen to "I wanna be sedated" before
giving public talks).  

This fortunately never happened to me, but I could imagine that to have my
advisor tell me that there was a "right" kind of music to listen
to--regardless of whatever highfalutin' intellectual reasons he had for it,
and regardless of how much I personally also might love said music--would
smack, to me, of that sort of attitude.  I would get the impression that
his notions of the higher ideals of "beauty" and "truth" (quotes
intentional) were more important than what he would deem my silly little
ego that wanted to listen to the Ramones.  And that would be alienating and
discouraging, not uplifting at all.

I really have enjoyed Linnea's descriptions of her boss in this last
posting, and in some others.  The idea that we're all in this together
(conspiritorial winks, messy feelings, and all) seems to me to be the best
antidote to lab alienation.


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