How to be the best (iGEM) mentor ever?

2019 has just started (about 15 days are already up), “Are you all pumped-up to be a new mentor, to guide an iGEM team or the master’s student or the young undergrad who has just arrived?” Before doing the same, read this article!

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Jan 21, 2019
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Here, I talk about the cocktail of mentoring and iGEM and if you don’t know what iGEM is, read my previous article.

To find the formula to be the best iGEM mentor ever and since I was a rookie mentor, I took help from two experienced iGEM mentors, Jake Wintermute and Haotian Guo over a couple of beers and ciders at Les Grands Voisins! Jake is a veteran mentor with over 6 of years of experience, while Haotian handled 4 teams, twice in China and twice in Paris and 2018 was my first year. I asked them to give their inputs on the environment and the drive needed by all wannabe mentors!

Let’s start with a quote by Ariel Lindner, the director of Centre Recherche Interdisciplinaire and the parisian iGEM Godfather, he believes, “ iGEM is about students making mistakes until October and then there is no time….”

The environment of iGEM, simply put, is doing science within a fixed period of time. Ideally, you work on a well-defined and well-thought project with team of undergraduates or master’s students. Hence, you as a mentor require to guide them. This would include choosing an area of work, teach them some techniques, help them with designing, try to find some collaborators, etc.  

For starters, you wouldn’t want to choose an immensely big project say for example, an exploration for “gold” across Europe (iGEM pun intended- teams win medals based on their performance)! Make sure that the students don’t venture out on an impossible journey. But instead, work on something concrete and within a defined region or topic.  So if they do plan to search for “gold” but do it in, say, Paris. You support them to discover the city of Paris, provide them with the metro plan, the Navigo pass or where to start from or to ask for ideas from real “gold” explorers.

Address questions like,  

“ Do we start at Catacombes or Montmartre?”

“ Is it better to take metro line 4 or RER B to reach Gare du Nord?”

“ Would stopping by at Notre Dame be a good idea?”

“Too many tourists? ” etc etc.

In other words, define their limits but give them means to overcome these restrictions!  Grant students the power to be independent, yet remain within the constraints of the budget and time duration. Choosing a topic that you have an expertise on is advised, as it would diminish the speed breakers and make the journey slightly less bumpier!

Putting this in another scenario, mentoring an iGEM team is exactly the relation you share with your PI. For example, if your PI studies quorum sensing, it would intelligent for you to select a project where you could study quorum sensing in Pseudomonas rather than photosynthesis in rice ! That way, you could be helped better by the PI as the two of you would share the same goals and interests. This principle to a certain extent also applies while working with an iGEM team, as the students could depend on you for help.

Additionally, you should believe this is your team and you are part of it. Either be a hands-on type, who has enough time to guide them through every step or a hands-off one,  the one who trains the students to take the mantle. Based on your availability and dedication, one has to choose of the time dedicated for this work!

Also in terms of number, the ideal student:mentor ratio should be 3:1 so that group runs smoothly and also avoids miscommunications and conflicts. But this may or may not happen! Further, there are usually groups within the team, a good mentor should promote inter-team interactions or get someone to lead such interactions, because at times there are many misperceptions. Even though students work together not everyone is completely aware of the progress of each group or decisions taken by other members of the team, it would be strategic to avoid it.

Besides, remember, each team is different and so is every student, you should try to be flexible with your tactics. Not everyone fits the mold! Choose constructive criticism over negative criticism- explain the problem, why the approach was wrong and what could be done better, rather than saying something negative out loud.

Be prepared to be confronted by errors and mishaps all the time!

Finding ways to boost when one’s moral is low is essential as there are roadblocks at every corner. This is inevitable, you start with something in mind, but in the end you might get something completely different.

In the end, we don’t know the formula to be the best (iGEM) mentor ever, but, you should become a (iGEM) mentor, if you can, to be more patient, to improve your analytical thinking, to teach and to learn at the same time, to motivate youngsters to be better scientists, to discover the nuances of human nature, to have great scientific discussions, to drink homemade beer, to play VR games, to meet other like-minded people, to think out-of-the box….I think the list is endless!

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Gayetri Ramachandran

Postdoctoral Researcher, Institut Imagine

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