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Awards: Conscientious counsellors


Nature's mentoring awards honour three scientists in France.

French research has traditionally suffered from a rigid hierarchical and sometimes patriarchal lab structure, in which powerful lab bosses have often hindered the autonomy of younger lab members. But some say that this is changing. Many leading scientists in France work tirelessly to help their younger colleagues to spread their own wings, and the public funding that is increasingly available to young scientists helps them to establish independent careers.

To celebrate progressive mentors and the examples they set, this year's Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science honour three researchers in France. The €10,000 (US$13,200) lifetime-achievement award was shared between Moshe Yaniv, a molecular biologist and emeritus professor at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and Jean Rossier, a neurobiologist at the City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Education Institution. The €10,000 mid-career award went to Barbara Demeneix, a molecular developmental endocrinologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Winners received the awards at a ceremony at the British Council in Paris on 12 December. (The author of this article was one of the five awards judges.)

Jean Rossier (left), Barbara Demeneix (centre) and Moshe Yaniv (right) inspire passion and hard work in their lab members, students and postdocs. Credit: E. ALCOCK/MYOP DIFFUSION

As in previous years, candidates were nominated by their protégés; past students and postdocs emphasized how their mentors shaped their careers and nurtured their scientific skills. Fatima Mechta-Grigoriou, who now runs a stress and cancer laboratory at the Curie Institute in Paris, says of her former mentor, Yaniv: “He deeply influenced me, without me being conscious of this at that time, the way I currently drive my research laboratory and my own students and postdocs.”

The mentors were lauded for their contagious passion and enthusiasm for science, and their hard work, rigour and fairness in sharing credit. Many protégés have sought to reproduce their mentors' behaviour, creating labs that are scientifically challenging and stimulating but also humane and nurturing — and giving their lab members enough autonomy to prepare them to run their own labs.

Work to live

“For me,” says Rossier, “the most important quality of a mentor is to be enthusiastic about the proposals and ideas of young investigators. Critiques should come later. First you should say 'do it' and then see if the new observation is real, reproducible and of interest.” He strives to foster research projects aimed at “breakthroughs”, rather than focusing on incremental developments within established concepts.

For the award winners, doing excellent science need not come at the expense of having a personal life. All three are demanding bosses, and lab hours are often long, but they eschew the notion of a 24/7 lab (see Nature 477, 20–22; 2011 and J. Overbaugh Nature 477, 27–28; 2011). Catherine Chanfreau-Coffinier, a cardiology researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and a former graduate student with Yaniv, marvelled at how he and his wife, also a scientist, found time for family. “It has been very inspiring for me as a young scientist and a mother of two,” she says. Samantha Richardson, a biochemist at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, and a former researcher in Demeneix's lab, tells how her mentor, who has two children, advised her on how to juggle her career with “the conflicting and competing time constraints of a research career and small children, which can be stressful and often exasperating”. Demeneix, the first-ever female chaired professor at the Paris museum, also prides herself on demonstrating how to “carry out research while accepting senior administrative responsibilities”.

The winners often paid particular attention to foreign students' difficulties, from visa issues to lodgings; and they recognized protégés' needs. Yaniv can be tough but he “never forgets that the people doing the experiments are people, with human sensitivities and concerns”, says Jonathan Weitzman, an epigenetics researcher at Paris Diderot University and a former postdoc with Yaniv.

The mentoring did not end when protégés left the lab. Carlos Cepeda, a UCLA neurophysiologist and a former postdoc with Rossier, says Rossier still influences him after 30 years, offering “scientific or even personal advice” whenever he reaches out. Pauliina Damdimopoulou, now an endocrinologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, says that Demeneix continues to mentor her and “gives [her] opinions and advice without force-feeding solutions”.

Research freedom

Many former students say that their mentors gave them extreme freedom, encouraged ownership of projects and avoided micromanagement — while still understanding every detail of their work. “I tried to step back in order to let them interpret their own data, come up with conclusions and put forward further hypotheses,” says Yaniv. “I endorsed their own initiatives and even let them embark in a wrong direction for a short while just to teach them how to be critical and analytical.” Demeneix pays attention to major stumbling blocks such as unexpected experimental results, or times when nothing seems to work. “It is at these moments,” she says, “that one needs to show maximum confidence in the student, teach them how to 'troubleshoot' experiments ... and to identify points in experiments where errors can occur.”

The winning mentors all had multidisciplinary labs, in which managing levels of freedom among team members can be a particular challenge. Rossier notes that because no one neuroscientist can master all the field's techniques, lab members with different backgrounds have to work together. The challenge for the lab head, he says, is to “find the right balance between the singularity of each individual and the common goal of the group”. Yaniv says that he tried to “create a lab space and atmosphere that increased the interaction between lab members”.

To help graduate students and postdocs to acquire mentoring skills themselves, Yaniv gets them to co-supervise and mentor master's or first-year PhD students, and interns. “One becomes much more responsible and socially interactive, less selfish and more tolerant to others' scientific weaknesses,” says Weitzman, “when one has some responsibilities toward others.”

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Butler, D. Awards: Conscientious counsellors. Nature 480, 575–576 (2011).

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