The way the Crews Lab works is by attracting intelligent and interested people determined to make a contribution. The rewards they receive are not monetary so much as (i) an opportunity to try their best at doing science, (ii) the responsibility they have for the success of a project, and (iii) the recognition received for a job well-done. On the basis of their experience in the laboratory some will decide to continue their training as biomedical researchers and others go into another related professional school. The primary sacrifice is the time devoted to a single endeavor and not having the opportunity to do other things. This is a choice all laboratory personnel have made.
There are five fundamental areas I feel are the essence of the mentoring process: how to distinguish important from trivial problems in research, how to design experiments and interpret the results, the process of publication of primary data in peer-reviewed journals and presentations at scientific meetings, grantsmanship, and how to get a job. My record indicates that I have excelled in all aspects. The first element is facilitated by a variety of model systems in the laboratory. This allows the student to experience research at many levels. Further, I allow the student to diversify and to ask interesting questions on many fronts. In general behavioral endocrinology has grown from recent developments in basic and molecular endocrinology (for its own sake), augmented by the tools of modern molecular biology. My laboratory has been at the forefront of this advance, most recently including the use of genetic knockout mice and epigenetically modified rats. The fact that there are a variety of animal model systems allows the student to address fundamental questions on the interface of evolutionary and mechanistic issues.
Importantly, I do not assign thesis problems, but rather help students formulate them. In all instances thesis research has been published in prestigious journals, including Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Hormones and Behavior, Animal Behaviour, Journal of Neuroscience, Journal of Comparative Neurology, and General and Comparative Endocrinology. Further, Ph.D students publish a number of papers while members of the laboratory (averaging 9 papers and chapters during their tenure in the lab). Students also are strongly encouraged early (usually in the first year of graduate study) to participate in national meetings and all have given papers or presented posters at at least one meeting per year. In addition, students get experience in how to write grants and I am pleased to say that all but one have obtained federal grant support (e.g., NSF predoctoral fellowships or NIH NRSA predoctoral fellowships). Finally, in the 25 years that I have been at UT 17 graduate students have received their PhD under my direct supervision. As of 2007 six of these individuals are now tenured Professors or Associate Professors, four are in tenure-track positions, and five are in postdoctoral fellowships. Hence I feel that I have had considerable experience both in recognizing talented students and achieved success in mentoring them.
I am responsible for the scientific planning and product of the laboratory, the students and fellows are responsible for the conduct of the research, and the research assistants are responsible for facilitating the research activities.
Thus, the laboratory by any standard is very successful. This laboratory is recognized nationally and internationally as a center of excellence in research in comparative behavioral neuroendocrinology. Productivity as measured by publications in refereed journals and books has been high since the Crews Lab was established at the University of Texas in 1982. There is no reason to doubt that this trend will continue. For example, the Crews Lab continues to have one of the highest rate of publication in the Section of Integrative Biology, averaging more than 10 papers per year.
The structure of the Crews Lab is merit based, not hierarchical. Age or academic rank is not generally a factor (undergraduates do not report to graduate students, graduate students to postdocs, etc). Rather, it is based on accomplishment. Therefore, an experienced undergraduate can rank an inexperienced graduate student in a particular task. So, for any specific task, a junior undergraduate may serve as a mentor to a postdoc (eg., Paul Kingston, a senior, taught Ellen Prediger, a postdoc, how to perform stereotoxic manipulations). Thus, a person’s rank is a combination of demonstrated excellence, time in the laboratory, and respect by peers. While I expect a postdoc to be more experienced than a graduate student, etc, I recognize that every one that comes into the laboratory has no prior experience with the work; they have come to the lab for training (it is a bonus of course when they do have relevant experience).
Another principle of the laboratory is “if it aint broke, don’t fix it.” At present the laboratory is functioning at a high degree of efficiency. Tinkering with procedures should be kept at a minimum. Only if a problem develops should a change be contemplated, and then no action taken until the history of the problem, and the reason for the current procedures are understood and appreciated. I once overheard the comment “there is the way everyone does it, and there is a better way.” But “different” does not necessarily mean “better.” In other words, changes must be justified by their outcomes, not because of personal preference.
A course of action to take if a problem presents itself is to research the problem and determine why the present policy is in place. Ask yourself: Is it inertia? Does it still get the job done? Will the contemplated change create more problems than it will fix? It may come as a shock to the student, but just because I am head of the laboratory does not mean that I know in all instances what is best way to run the laboratory. [Example: decentralization of ordering sounded fine to me, but I did not know full extent of the problem before instituting a change in policy (single orders as well as redundancy in telephoning). That is, it is more efficient to have a single person do the ordering on a single day. Before that individual leaves the lab, it is important to train a new person before their departure.]
Remember that people come first. If there are no people, the job will not be accomplished. But the wrong people will also lead to nothing being accomplished. The right person antagonized because of over-control or domination will become the wrong person. People must be cultivated and trained. I have found this means to allow them to grow (within bounds). It also means that you have to be sensitive to the insecurities and lack of self-confidence exhibited by people who are still discovering their interests and potential. Confidence is interpreted by another, self-confident person as confidence, but the same behavior/attitude/statement will be taken by someone less confident as arrogant or, worse, condescending.
Because people rotate in and out of CREWS LAB on a regular basis, the best way to effect change is to concentrate on training the incoming people, not trying to change those in place who are working well on their projects and especially not those who are on the way out (they are only interested in finishing up, not on a correct way to do something). Thus, I have found that a good policy to have is to be “hands off” except for those individuals where you have responsiblity. For example, one of the responsibilities of a supervisor of work/study personnel is to see that all of the UT paperwork is done and submitted in a timely fashion. Work/Study (W/S) are assigned to individual undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs. In most cases these individuals will do the recruiting and supervise the W/S activities. The other major source of lab recruits are word of mouth. Words quickly gets around that this is a good lab to be in. Let us keep it that way.
Scientific ethics constitute the norms that help distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable practices in scientific research. It should be recognized and appreciated that conflicts of opinion will occur and maturity by both sides will be required. In the event that the mentor or the student find differences to be severe and cannot be resolved, the mentor needs to expedite the departure of the student from the lab so that the lab morale is maintained.
Responsibilities of a mentor in a mentor-student relationship:
- Provide direction, assistance, and advice during the course of student’s career.
- Strive to provide financial support to student (e.g. tuition, experimental supplies), including ensuring that TA support is forthcoming in the event GRA funds are not available.
- Act as a role model so that the student can develop their own style.
- Introduce the student to contacts in the field to build student’s professional network.
- Provide letters of recommendation.
- Show respect for the student.
- Understand and appreciate points of view held by the student that differ from the mentor’s own.
Responsibilities of a student in a mentor-student relationship:
- Show respect for the mentor.
- Provide assistance and feedback with respect to lab projects.
- Ensuring one’s project is carried out in an optimal manner.
- Understand the needs and expectations the mentor has of the student.
- Understand and appreciate points of view held by the mentor that differ from the student’s own.
- Ensure that the lab runs smoothly by being a good lab citizen.
- Understand Lab Manual on diverse issues; this should be read annually. (e.g. A request for vacation during field season was made in the past and resulted in a disagreement about scheduling time away from the lab. Since then such matters have been dealt with in the lab manual by stating that vacations cannot be taken during animal field season periods).
- Reporting all lab-related matters to the PI to facilitate a productive mentor-student relationship.
Data generated by federally funded research is owned by three entities; the sponsoring organization (e.g. a university), the federal funding agency, the PI. However, the right to use and publish the data resides in the hands of the PI. Copies of lab notebooks can be stored outside of the lab for safety, but originals do not leave the lab.
Publishing the same data in different papers gives too much weight to those data and sometimes might imply that the study has been carried out twice. Should authors want to report the same data in separate publications, this point should be made clear to the reader.
Intentional errors are at the center of scientific misconduct and cannot be tolerated. Any individual engaging in such actions must be dismissed from scientific research. However, unintentional errors do not constitute scientific misconduct. Should such errors occur, it is the responsibility of the parties concerned to try and remedy the situation as soon as possible. Preferably these should be caught prior to submission of manuscripts. However, should this involve published data, this could range from writing the editor to correct a minor, unintentional mistake (erratum) or to correct a flaw that might undermine a research report (correction). In the instance of personal interactions, amends should be made personally and with maturity when the error becomes evident. Apologies should be accepted at face value. Anything less constitutes a lack of maturity and the relationship cannot progress. If there are repeated instances of conflict, then the relationship should be limited or terminated.