Awards: Thumbs up for Canadian mentors

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Nature recognizes the best of the country's science advisers.

John Smol is one of Canada's top researchers in environmental science, his studies ranging from acid rain and climate change to the effects of pollution on salmon populations and the Arctic — yet he always has time for his students. Chris Wood's students marvel at how he infuses others with his work ethic and enthusiasm — almost, they say, as if through “subliminal suggestion”. Now, both mentors are receiving recognition for their abilities to guide and inspire.


Smol and Wood are the winners of this year's Nature awards for mentorship (see 'Distinguished careers'). Smol, a palaeoecologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, won for mid-career mentoring achievement. Wood, an expert in fish physiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, won for lifetime achievement. Each received Can$10,000 (US$9,800) on 5 November, at a ceremony in Toronto, Ontario.

The winners were chosen from more than 50 nominees, put forward in applications by colleagues, former students and the nominees themselves. The judging committee was led by John Hepburn, research and international vice-president at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. The panel remarked on the high quality of all the applications, but was won over by the passionately sincere testimonials from Wood's former students, many of whom spoke of his lab as if it were a family. And Smol is in a class of his own, says Hepburn. “You get the whole package,” he adds. “You get the picture of a totally socially engaged scientist.”

This is the seventh year that Nature has sponsored an award to recognize excellence in mentorship, each time focusing on a different country.

Mariner of human kindness

Smol, 54, founder and co-director of the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab at Queen's University, has earned the nickname 'mariner of human kindness'. He says he gets as much out of interacting with his students as they do, thanks to their probing questions. “We have friendly jousting,” he says. “I think that's how they learn. It's how I learn too.” The dedication in his most recently co-authored ecology textbook reads: “To my students, who have inspired me far more than I could ever have inspired them.”

“The job is not just to be a science adviser, but to help people through whatever happens.”

Hepburn says that Smol's most striking accomplishment is his success rate. “He has never failed with a graduate student — never,” he adds. The application lists more than 60 graduate students who have passed through Smol's lab, none of whom have withdrawn or failed. “That's mentoring,” says Hepburn. Smol attributes this success to customizing his approach. “Part of the job is not just to be a science adviser, but to help people through whatever happens, from deaths to personal-relationship problems,” he says. This included supporting one student when he blew the whistle on a plagiarist, and keeping another's research programme alive when she could not work for a year because of health and personal problems. “I went to bat for a lot of my students,” he says.

The judges praised Smol for emphasizing the mentor's role in training students not only in data collection, but also in communication and ethics, ensuring that they come out with a “strong moral compass”, as Smol put it in his application. “We should never underestimate the importance of what we do as scientists,” he says, noting the value of, for example, pressing politicians to create evidence-based policy. “If your data is strong, you have to make the case. It's your job,” says Smol. He spends a lot of time talking to the media and policy-makers, and hopes in this way to lead by example.

Wood, 63, has made his name in the field of comparative physiology, spearheading studies of fish responses to pollution (including acid rain) and climate change that have made an impact on public policy in Canada. The former students who nominated him all commented on his infectious energy and passion for science. They praised his ability to inspire and impress others with his own work ethic — that mentoring power of subliminal suggestion. More seriously, they call it “mentorship through example”. “I've never really understood why my students have done quite so well, but I'm enthusiastic and I think that comes across,” says Wood.

Wood has attracted almost 100 postdocs and graduate students to his lab; about 40% now hold faculty positions. “Nearly single-handedly, he is repopulating the universities of the world with the next generation of comparative physiologists,” wrote nominator Steve Perry, a former postdoc from Wood's lab and now vice-dean of research at the University of Ottawa in Ontario. Wood has also overseen more than 220 undergraduate students.

Canada's best mentors: John Smol (left) and Chris Wood inspire their students and postdocs. Credit: SMOL: QUEEN'S UNIV.

Two of Wood's student nominators have won the governor-general's gold medal, awarded to the top doctoral candidate at each university in Canada; one notes that Wood called his undergraduate grades “colourful” when they first met. “His marks were spotty — he had to repeat a year,” says Wood. “But he did such a good job in his thesis that I made a pitch for him.” After fighting to get the student into graduate school, Wood says the student exceeded his “wildest expectations”.

Perhaps Wood's most powerful technique is holding compulsory weekly lab meetings. Many of his nominators said that the gatherings made them feel like part of a collaboration that was greater than the sum of its parts. “It's a bonding experience,” says Wood. “My only rule is that you can't miss this meeting.”

Two of a kind

The winners were both complimented for their healthy and fun lab atmosphere, which keeps enthusiasm high and puts troubles into perspective. Smol says that he aims to laugh out loud with his students at least once a day — about anything from work to clothes to a television programme. Wood hosts an annual get-together, at which he once greeted his newest postdoc while dressed in drag as a member of the pop group the Spice Girls. “In our field we have this philosophy of having a good time — working hard, playing hard,” says Wood. “It turns people on to the idea that science doesn't have to be dry.” Both mentors have had several successful female students in their labs.

Each says that getting students out of the lab and into conferences or visits to other research groups is also a vital part of the mentoring strategy. “John is ready to forgo hiring administrative help (despite pleas from his colleagues who fear for his health!) and instead uses his discretionary funding to send students to important learning and research events,” wrote nominator Brian Cumming, a former graduate student of Smol's and now director of the School of Environmental Studies at Queen's University. Wood often takes a mixture of current and former students to the remote Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “I think that's really important in forging inter-generational links,” says Wood, who plans to give a chunk of his award money to the centre.

The unifying theme across all the entries for the awards, says judging-panel member John Clague, an Earth scientist at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver, is that none of the applicants sees their students as just another set of hands. “It isn't all about increasing productivity” as it can be in some labs, he says.

The judges say that there is a need for more recognition of mentoring in the university system. Some efforts are already under way. Many Canadian universities have an award for excellence in graduate supervision; Queen's University is one, and Smol was the inaugural winner in 2006. But the judges agreed that more could be done. “We're at the same place with mentorship now as we were with teaching ten years ago” in terms of official recognition, says Hepburn.

“We train scientists to do experiments,” says judging-panel member Mona Nemer, vice-president of research at the University of Ottawa. “They come out as thinkers and problem solvers in their areas. But we don't train them in management, ethics, communication and teaching. That's where mentorship comes in.” Both Smol and Wood are clearly carrying that torch.

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Jones, N. Awards: Thumbs up for Canadian mentors. Nature 468, 335–336 (2010) doi:10.1038/nj7321-335a

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