Many surgical residents take dedicated time to pursue a research fellowship during training, and one of the most crucial decisions when preparing for this time “in the lab” is choosing the right mentor. The mentor and mentee make a commitment to work together, but mentors have their own personal and professional needs and obligations too, and sometimes the mentor’s path involves moving to a new institution. What does this mean for the mentee when their mentor switches institutions before or during their lab time? Does the trainee have to change their plans entirely?
I was in this position a few years ago. As a surgery resident at MGH, I planned to start my academic development time after my PGY-3 year, and I was going to be working with a transplant surgeon, Dr. Joel Adler, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Our focus is health services and policy research in transplant surgery. Joel and I had been working together for a couple years already. He was on faculty at the Center for Surgery and Public Health (CSPH) and this was my “home base.” A few months into the start of my lab time, Joel announced he was switching institutions to the University of Texas at Austin. I felt uncertainty at first, but Joel made it clear that he had all the necessary plans in place for us to keep working together despite the move. Fast forward two years and he remains my primary mentor, and I’d say we hardly missed a beat with our working relationship despite the distance.
This situation is probably more common than you’d think. I know a few co-residents whose mentors also moved. As a disclaimer, the nature of my research (large database studies) is conducive to remote work, and this is not the case for other types of research. Thus, my experience may not be generalizable to all, but I’m here to share how we managed to make the best of it.
- How will the mentee continue their work during the transition? It will take time for the mentor to make the move and get their new lab up and running. Have a plan in place to smooth the transition. This will largely fall on the mentor and takes quite a bit of coordination. The mentee shouldn’t have to halt progress during this time.
- The mentee needs to maintain data access at their home institution. In our case, I remained a CSPH fellow, and the data continued to live on the CSPH servers. Joel had to find another faculty member to assume the role of PI, both for IRBs and Data Use Agreements (DUAs).
- The mentee needs credentials at the new institution. Once Joel was settled at UT, I needed credentials to access UT’s data server. It took some time for our datasets to arrive since this required new DUAs. Server access is typically accomplished via a Remote Desktop anyway, so once the data arrived the workflow was familiar. Though when any troubleshooting is needed, it can be a challenge (not insurmountable) to work with administrators and IT support staff at a different institution where they can’t match a face to a name.
- How will the mentor and mentee communicate? Fortunately, distance is less of a barrier now thanks to the ubiquity of remote meetings (e.g. Zoom).
- Schedule regular meetings (virtually). We meet every Tuesday morning on Zoom. In fact, when Joel was still in Boston, even then we were meeting remotely due to the pandemic. The downside of course is that impromptu meetings, curbside consults, and watercooler conversations are harder. This can be overcome if the mentor is available and accessible via email.
- Make time for in-person visits. In-person interactions matter. We see each other a few times a year at conferences. I’ve also gone to Austin every year to present our work at their Annual Department of Surgery and Perioperative Care Research Day (and to eat BBQ). Most institutions have such a symposium and this is a great opportunity for the mentee to show their face, and most importantly, to meet the other members of the team in person. Working over email and zoom becomes easier once you’ve met in person.
- The mentee should maintain a presence at their home institution. This arguably should apply to anyone doing a significant amount of work away from their home institution. It’s important that I show face and remain visible at MGH and CSPH, even when the bulk of my work is being done with my mentor at UT Austin. I still have many research projects with MGH mentors, and Joel is a collaborator on many of those. I’m a proponent of making one’s Venn diagram circles overlap whenever possible.
- Adding collaborators can take some effort. If other research fellows in Boston want to work with us, the start-up costs are significant to gain access to data at UT. A medical student from Boston who wants to do a summer project with us? It’s harder to make that happen—if they need server/data access—and would require a serious commitment by both parties. I have still collaborated with other students and fellows in Boston, but this work tends to be done with my MGH mentors and with the datasets we have here in Boston.
- On the other hand: embrace the ability of virtual meetings to facilitate wide collaboration. Zoom meetings have become routine and normalized, and thus distance is less likely to be perceived as a barrier to collaboration. In fact, we meet monthly with a group of collaborators at Columbia University. This has been a great experience, and such relationships likely would have been harder to build even 5 years ago.
Overall, this experience has been positive, and possibly for the better. Did the transition slow our work down a bit? Probably, but any transient effects on productivity have been outweighed by the benefit of expanding my network of mentors and collaborators across multiple institutions.
David C. Cron, MD, MS
General Surgery Resident and Research Fellow, Massachusetts General Hospital
Research Fellow, Center for Surgery and Public Health
Joel T. Adler, MD, MPH
Assistant Professor of Surgery
Department of Surgery and Perioperative Care
University of Texas at Austin