Dr. Funk – Four years ago, I wrote a blog for the Academic Surgeon titled, “Finding Your Primary Mentor” – https://www.aasurg.org/blog/finding-your-primary-mentor/. I was two years into my first faculty position, and I wanted to share some thoughts with trainees and junior faculty members who were starting research programs. Since then, I have mentored 10 undergraduate, graduate, and medical students and 1 post-doctorate research fellow, Dr. Natalie Liu. Dr. Liu is currently in the second year of her NIH T-32 experience. Dr. Liu and I thought it would be informative to share some things we have learned about mentorship and the research process over the past 2 years.
- How did you identify your mentor/mentee as someone you wanted to work with?
Dr. Liu – When picking a research mentor, I took into consideration 3 important factors: 1) whether the mentor’s research interests align with my own research interests and future career goals; 2) how productive the mentor is; and 3) whether I would be able to get along and work effectively with the mentor. I identified Dr. Funk because his research in bariatric surgery and obesity were in line with my own research and career interests. A quick PubMed search demonstrated that he was productive (he had published numerous papers within the last year). When I met with him, we discussed his current projects and identified which projects that I could potentially work on. A previous mentor of mine recommended working on a quick project with any prospective mentor prior to committing in order to evaluate our working and communication styles. While I was unable to do a research project with Dr. Funk before deciding to work with him, I had worked with him extensively in the OR, outpatient, and inpatient settings, and I was confident that we would be able to get along and work effectively.
Dr. Funk – I worked with Dr. Liu clinically when she was a junior resident before her research experience. Her performance on our service stood out. She came to the OR as an intern to cover cases or double scrub cases that were not assigned to her. She came to my clinic and was impressive clinically – clear and concise presentations and plans. Those were clear signs that she was motivated, engaged, interested in my specialty, and could communicate clearly. Although clinical and research expertise does not always perfectly overlap, I thought she had what it took to succeed during her research years.
- How do you identify a research question/project?
Dr. Liu – One of us usually starts with a research idea or question. We then discuss the feasibility, potential methodology, and what other published studies exist on the topic. I think the most important step in identifying and working through a research question is what we call a “1-pager” – a 1-page research proposal that includes background/literature review, objectives, proposed methodology, and skeleton tables/figures. This helps us take a research idea and lay out the steps to project completion. In addition, the proposed methodology and skeleton tables/figures provide organizational structure for our statistical team and help guide the key results we are looking for.
Dr. Funk – I like the concept of a “1-pager” to succinctly summarize the literature, research question, hypothesis (if applicable), and proposed study design. This is an approach that my research mentor, Dr. Atul Gawande, used during my fellowship (he noted that President Clinton used this approach when Atul was a health policy advisor in his administration), and it has stuck with me. I like this exercise because it challenges trainees like Dr. Liu to shorten the proposal down to the essential elements of the project. It also provides insight about how she is thinking about a research question and how that may differ from me.
- How do you resolve areas of disagreement?
Dr. Liu – Right off the bat, I learned that Dr. Funk and I have different communication styles. He is very analytical, while I tend to be more intuitive, but we were able to find a happy medium. The 2 things I have learned in order to communicate effectively with him are: 1) there is no such thing as over-communication; and 2) always use closed-loop communication. We always make sure that all details are thoroughly communicated to the other person, and the use of closed-loop communication lets us know that the other person heard us loud and clear. Regarding disagreements, initially, I did not think we had any disagreements. But, in thinking back, I realized that we disagree a fair amount of the time. Fortunately, our disagreements tend to be more like discussions or conversations about decisions, rather than arguments. When we do disagree, we spend as much time as needed to talk through the issue and come to an agreement that we are both satisfied with. I admit that the majority of our “disagreements” stem from my own inexperience, but Dr. Funk often concedes and allows me the independence to make the “wrong” decision to gain experience from my mistakes. Most importantly, Dr. Funk creates an open work environment where I always feel comfortable voicing and discussing my own viewpoints.
Dr. Funk – I try to approach these issues like I do clinical issues. Although the decisions are ultimately mine to make (similar to a patient on the OR table), I think listening and incorporating Dr. Liu’s feedback makes the product much better. Honestly, I rarely challenge her quantitative interpretations of our findings (her mom has a PhD in mathematics, dad is a computer engineer, and sister is getting her PhD in structural biology from MIT). Needless to say, she is good at math and if we disagree here, it is usually because I’m wrong. Most of our other disagreements are process-related differences of opinion: How should we respond to those reviewer critiques (Dr. Liu – “that Reviewer is ridiculous”; Me – “perhaps, but let’s figure out how to convince him or her that our manuscript is worthy of publication”)? How can we best work with other team members, including biostatisticians and administrators? I prefer direct, honest, usually in-person conversations with all involved parties. My general approach is: “You’re not going to hurt my feelings if you think my idea is bad. Let me know how we can do this better. Our goal is to disseminate the best science and advance the field.”
- What is the most important thing you have learned from your mentor/mentee?
Dr. Liu – I had limited prior research experience, so one of the most important things I have learned from Dr. Funk is how to take a research question and turn it into a well-designed project and manuscript. As someone interested in academic surgery in the future, this is an invaluable skill for me. I have also learned how to effectively and efficiently work within a multidisciplinary team of researchers, programmers, and statisticians. Dr. Funk has given me a great deal of independence from day 1, and through that experience, I have become comfortable leading our research team. However, the most important thing I have learned from Dr. Funk is what makes a mentor remarkable. He has been a phenomenal, supportive, and motivating mentor and for me, is an example of the type of mentor and leader I wish to emulate in my future career.
Dr. Funk – I have learned that I need to be able to adapt to the trainee’s aptitude, style, and area of interest to support her and make her experience as valuable as possible. During the first year, I spent a lot of time trying to share my basic approach to research – how I do a literature review, put together tables, generate a research question, and write. Dr. Liu doesn’t need much more from me in those areas. During this second year of research, I see her more like a chief resident or fellow. It’s “finishing school” as one of my previous program directors would say. I need to focus on the skills she needs to build her independent research career in a few years. Even though my natural tendency is not to be out there shaking hands and kissing babies, I want people know who she is. She needs to network, and I need to support that. She also needs to understand the grant writing and review process and I’ve tried to facilitate her thinking about her areas of future research.
Dr. Liu and Dr. Funk – In the end, it is up to both the trainee and research mentor to have clear and honest communication. Research, like surgery, is a team sport. Commitment, hard work, adaptability, and a shared set of goals will facilitate a productive and enjoyable experience.