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Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

The Importance of Scientific Mentoring

We should all have mentors as conscientious as Bruce

Thirty-one years ago, and a soon to be junior in college, I got a summer job as a lab tech at Cornell University washing laboratory glassware and making simple solutions. I divided my time between three labs, all in the Department of Plant Biology, and pondered how this experience would affect my future. It did, it really did. I got my foot in the door and my head in the game. I was gifted mentors upon mentors too.

I knew I liked science, but I felt a little like a misfit (still do) between being a people person, a budding biologist and math maniac, and me just being me. Molecular biology was dawning, the field was dividing into sub-specialties, and making a big impact in Plant Biology which was together but also divided into physiologists, herbarium taxonomists, applied horticulturists, paleobotanists and plant anatomists and more. Still, I didn’t feel my interests belonged to any one lab or discipline “yet”. I was also an Ithaca-born “townie”, a distinction that also made me stand out differently. In addition to having people ask me to recommend a dentist or a grocery store, I even gave personal tours of the Finger Lakes-area waterfalls to visiting scientists.

Learning on the job

Happily, I discovered there were avenues for people like me, who were more interested in being a jack-of-all-trades than devoting all of their attention to just one science thing. And I eventually became friends with mentor scientists who fit the same mold, who cross-trained, and merged different science and engineering and computer fields, figuring out how to figure out solutions to questions that may not have even been asked yet.

This scientific awakening into my many directions might not have been possible, were it not for

Debbie Dormady Letham with Cornell U. colleagues
With my mentor Bruce, standing, and colleague Heriberto in background.

one of my favorite Cornell lab technician managers, Bruce. He noticed right away that I was “teachable” and was curious and he invited me to observe both the gel-based experiments that were being used to study plant proteins and the colorful phosphorylation assays based on pH gradients in the cells. He also underscored WHY it was important for me, as the undergraduate summer helper making solutions and cleaning glassware, to get my job right so everyone else could get theirs done. Many projects filled my days. I got to help organize the lab drawer inventories, alphabetize the chemicals (some dating back 30 years), learn the fun and frustration of acrylamide gel pouring techniques, and work with people of all cultures and backgrounds. I even was asked to sew a darkroom curtain for the X-OMAT film developer. Random and I loved it.

Budding plant biologist

A few years later I returned to the Cornell campus as a graduate student in a Plant Biology lab down the hall. But I was pleased to remain a resource for my original three labs as well. I knew where those rare (30-yr old) chemicals were, how to take care of the centrifuge rotors GENTLY, and what to do when the vintage gate-door type Otis elevators got stuck. I even enjoyed planning the “Picnic on the Patio” summer socials. Much later, as a post-doctoral associate in the building down the road, I would return to my old old lab to find just the right tool in this enormous wooden set of drawers that still stands there today.

Even now I can see Bruce showing me the chemical shelves, next to the pH meter which I was also in charge of calibrating, near the bench filled with bottles stacked on bottles. He pointedly reminded me not to dangerously mix certain chemicals, and he warned me seriously by holding up one particular secured jar, emphasizing that the contents could kill the whole population of the town, my hometown. Hmmmm … OK, that’s is when you know the gravity of getting things right. We should all have mentors who are that conscientious. We should all want to get it right.

I saw how Bruce worked behind the scenes, soothing frayed personalities in stressful situations and always lending an ear. There were so many conversations spent buffering professors and graduate students in those inevitable disagreements over science and direction. Bruce saw people as people, he could see thru the absurdity of office politics and policies, and he knew the dangers that stifled people’s motivation. He knew that if people were emotionally fed and felt appreciated, then they would thrive. Bruce taught me more than just the finesse needed for the resuspension of the green chloroplast pellets with tiny favorite paint brushes; he demonstrated the importance of listening. We should all want for everyone to thrive, not just survive.

My freedom to work between labs mirrored the whole Cornell graduate-level experience where you make your own path through life, no cookie-cutter PHD’s there! Those early times molded me and gave me direction and a vast skill set that I will always appreciate. Maybe we are all misfits in this world because we think we just don't always fit into the norms, and now I can see that that's a very GOOD thing. If we all fit perfectly, we might not try to make a difference in helping others fit better. We help because we were helped.

Thanks Bruce! And continued thanks to ALL mentors out there – keep teaching – you ARE making a difference!