Discovering a Mentor

June 1, 2021

By Akanksha Verma, Ph.D., Scientist II, Computational Biology 

Scientists spend years unraveling complex mechanisms or looking for new molecules and biomarkers. We expend so much energy and effort in the pursuit of discovering what’s in our beaker, under our microscope or on our computer.

Yet I would say one of the most important discoveries any scientist can make is not something that can be detected by an instrument or software program. Because that discovery is a person – specifically, a mentor. Mentors are invaluable guides because they can offer advice on finding your way in the “real world” after graduation. They often teach skills and provide you with wise insights that would normally take years to discover on your own.

While I was in college, a professor encouraged me to take a summer internship in the lab of Dr. Olivier Elemento, a computational genomics professor at Weill Cornell Medicine. Unsure of what I wanted in my career, I took his advice. That summer changed my entire trajectory and gave me clarity about what I wanted to do after graduation.

In Olivier’s lab, I got my first real experience in scientific research. It was exciting to be part of the emerging field of computational genomics. I worked closely with Olivier and came to deeply value his mentorship style. He offered motivation and encouragement, but allowed and, in fact, pushed me to make my own decisions. By the end of the summer, he was suggesting that I pursue a Ph.D. after college. While this was something I was already starting to consider, Olivier’s support and belief in my abilities gave me the confidence to pursue that degree and think about how I could succeed in this field.

In 2016, I joined Olivier’s lab as a Ph.D. student. I was a newly minted college grad with a computer science degree, still growing and figuring out the scientist I wanted to become. I vividly remember my early years in the lab, where I was often anxious about how many decisions I had to make and how many directions I was being pulled in.

Life after college can be terrifying; new responsibilities seems to come out of nowhere and classes you thought prepared you well don’t exactly do so – there’s still a lot to learn. It is critical in the years after leaving school that you keep an open mindset, an eager attitude and a connection to the mentors in your life. They are not just there to lead you to your field, they can help you grow within it.

Olivier taught me to “show up” – to take charge of my work, learn how to prioritize and, importantly, to be receptive and open-minded. He didn’t teach this in any specific way, rather it was reflected in his mentoring style. He was always available to talk or discuss my thoughts, but insisted on making sure I had the freedom to figure things out on my own. The confidence he had in me, and the support he offered, allowed me to put this value in myself. By the end of my Ph.D., I felt confident running my own projects and advising other students. This lesson, and the impact it had, will no doubt stay with me throughout my career.

For all the new graduates out there, my advice is simple. Be willing to explore and stay positive about the journey ahead while staying in touch with those that have helped you so far. I am incredibly thankful to Olivier and all of the other people who have led me to where I am today. A scientific career is an incredibly rewarding but complex journey, and we all need the support of others. My hope is that I can one day make the same impact on the next generation of scientists.