Insights to Inspire: Mentorship: A Bridge to the Future

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Effective mentorship is one of the most important contributors to a successful career in translational research. TL1 trainees and KL2 scholars benefit from the relationships and support that come from a well-planned mentoring program. During the 2020 Insights to Inspire series CTSA Program hubs that demonstrated success in improving the Careers in Clinical and Translational Research described the strategies they implemented, specifically focusing on mentoring and training. 

Be a matchmaker

The first and perhaps most critical component of providing scholars or trainees with effective mentorship is to ensure program members are paired with mentors with compatible, complimentary skill sets and with whom they can build cooperative, beneficial relationships. David Brousseau, Director of the TL1 Program at the Clinical and Translational Science Institute of Southeast Wisconsin (CTSI) at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) expressed that successful mentorship help recruits “build the bridge” to the rest of their careers. “The idea is that the best mentoring experience is what’s going to – one – allow them to be successful and – two – to want to continue in clinical and translational research,” Brousseau said. During the TL1 admission process, Brosseau explained that CTSI staff would solicit information about an applicant’s planned mentor to learn about their mentor track record. The CTSI also provides training for the mentors to allow trainees to have the best research experience. 

Scholars entering the KL2 Program at the South Carolina Clinical and Translational Research (SCTR) Institute at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) often come with their own mentors, according to Program Director Marc Chimowitz. MUSC prefers that already-assigned mentors have skills that align with the program criteria, including a strong record of funding, leadership experience, and a strong mentorship record. When appropriate, MUSC CTSI staff help trainees and scholars find a mentor within the program. MUSC also offers a mentor training symposium that is open to everyone on campus each year, as well as a four-week mentorship training course. 

The Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCTS) based at the University of Alabama at Birmingham has built a mentorship core that reflects the diversity of the university’s students and recruits. The program has been helpful in both attracting scholars and trainees and ensuring their success throughout the program, according to KL2 and TL1 Program Manager Jeanne Merchant. KL2 and TL1 Program Director Ken Saag says constructive mentor relationships create a symbiotic relationship that benefits the mentor as well as the mentee. And – with a mission to address the health disparities of the Deep South – that diversity helps the CCTS serve its mission. “It really does mean a lot to me that we’re able to select trainees that are from the same background as the people we’re trying to help with our research,” Merchant said. 

Build a ladder

In order to maintain an effective diverse mentorship core for years to come, several hubs described the work they have done to build a pathway that helps trainees, scholars, and faculty become mentors. Nate Hafer, Director of Operations at the University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science, said the hub’s “K Club” offers junior faculty a chance to hone their skills as mentors. It is a way of paying back the mentorships they benefited from when they were students and trainees.

Luisa DiPietro, Principal Investigator and Director of the KL2 program at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) Center for Clinical and Translational Science, said their hub has been able to benefit from and build upon the diversity that she said is part of the fabric of UIC. “Often our job is linking our scholars to the right mentors and having a diverse group of mentors helps us do that,” DiPietro said. After finding success early on, hub staff engaged former scholars from underrepresented groups and recruited them to serve as mentors. The hub’s emphasis on team and mentor training also helps with mentor retention and success, so the mentorship core sustains itself.  

Staff members at several hubs pointed to the importance of supporting research that can be uniquely relevant to women and underrepresented researchers. This support helps retain mentors, and helps recruit applicants. “We have funded scholars looking at impact of race on African American women and acculturation of Latinx women. I think when word gets around that you have a program willing to fund that kind of research program it’s quite attractive,” Brousseau said. 

Supplement the mentoring

A positive relationship with a primary mentor is crucial for scholars and trainees, but many hubs offer additional programs to help program recruits develop their skills and further their careers. In addition to quarterly meetings with scholars and their mentors, Diana Lee-Chavarria, Education and Workforce Development Program Manager at MUSC, said the hub has implemented initiatives such as a “K to R Club” in which scholars from programs across the campus can learn about submitting grant applications, receive feedback from senior faculty and engage in peer-to-peer mentoring. Much of the support provided to faculty at the KL2 Program of the Mayo Clinic Center for Clinical and Translational Science (CCaTS), according to Dean for Clinical and Translational Science Sundeep Khosla, is focused on young women faculty and is meant to facilitate career development at an early stage across the institution. For example, the Leader Launch program – a collaboration between several of CCaTS’ offices and an external consultancy that’s designed to enhance women’s leadership skills, builds confidence and provide support for them to complete research or entrepreneurial projects.

Chimowitz said one thing the KL2 program does not do is require excessive coursework from mentees. Instead, the program allows them to focus on their research. “Our job at the program is really to support them and give them the opportunity to conduct their research that will propel them to be successful as independent researchers,” Lee-Chavarria said. Khosla said if protecting research time for program members means convincing institutional leadership to allow for it, hubs should make the argument that such research is critical to the mission and reputation of hubs and the CTSA Program, and that divisions and departments should be evaluated on research as much as clinical output. “You have to support career development and research in order to come up with new therapies and to have the kind of reputation that patients are going to be willing to come to Rochester, Minnesota,” Khosla said. 

Nearly every hub interviewed noted that the creation of a successful mentorship program that benefits both scholars and trainees comes down to one thing: dedication. “Training the next generation is like having kids. You’ve got to get them launched and provide unconditional support for their success and I think that’s the attitude most of us have,” said Saag.