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Passing the Baton

December 30, 2021
Ralph Nachman, MD
Professor emeritus of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, New York

Dr. Nachman talks about mentoring as an integral part of being a physician–scientist. Dr. Nachman is the winner of the 2016 ASH Basic Science Mentor Award.

Is there a path to becoming a mentor?

I don't believe anyone sets out to become a mentor, rather, it grows naturally out of one's work as a scientist. I became a mentor through the discussions with my institution's housestaff about clinical problems; as these problems became part of my scientific interest, I started tackling some of them in the laboratory – working with students, housestaff, and, of course, fellows.

Solving clinical problems becomes a joint enterprise, and communication between participants is a vital part of what we do as scientists. And, as I continued throughout my career, I worked with more young people so, for me, taking up more mentoring responsibilities seemed to be a natural progression.

I see mentoring as intrinsic to being a biomedical scientist who is interested in patient care. It's part and parcel of the entire scientific and clinical problem-solving process.

“Mentoring is part and parcel of the entire scientific and clinical problem-solving process.”

What qualities make a great mentor?

Honesty, integrity, and, perhaps most importantly, trust in the people you work with.

A great mentor should also have what I like to call "generosity of spirit," or the ability to take enjoyment in watching the people you work with grow and develop and to share the accolades of recognition – whether that's through publications or achievements at the bedside and the bench.

Much of that depends on the personality of the mentor, and it is sometimes difficult for people to learn. But I've found that you can enjoy the recognition and success of people you work with almost as much as your own. Being a mentor doubles your successes and joys, as well as your frustrations.

As a mentor, you are living through your mentees' experiences. For instance, one of the earliest joys of being a biomedical scientist is seeing your name on the author list of a journal article for the first time, and that is equaled by seeing the people you've trained – your friends and your colleagues – do the same thing. The pride and accomplishment is immense. It's a measure of knowing that what you've done has significant benefit.

How has your approach to mentoring changed over the years?

We all come across teachers, physicians, and scientists whom we model because we admire who they are, how they accomplish things, and we see ourselves having the same accomplishments. Then, as your career progresses, you become aware that what you do influences the behavior and careers of others – particularly young trainees – and you start to form your own approach.

Becoming a role model isn't something we are consciously aware of; it's a way of doing business as a biomedical physician–scientist – a part of the system we belong to.

In turn, the people you interacted with and helped train begin to act as mentors. I like to think of mentoring as running a relay race and "handing off the baton" to younger colleagues so they can keep running the race. When I was younger, I was very active in track, and the most interesting race was the one-mile relay. There were four runners, and, after running their quarter-mile leg of the race, each runner hands off the baton to the next. There's nothing more satisfying than handing off the baton cleanly and crisply and perfectly synchronizing the motion between the runner coming and the runner leaving. Doing that in a smooth, almost ballet-like fashion requires great trust. I feel that same satisfaction when I can help a trainee at the bedside or the bench, and when he or she continues running his or her own race.

When you reach that point when your actions start to influence others who, in turn, influence others, you become more aware of what you do. It might not change your approach, but you recognize that your actions have reverberations. There's no greater sense of accomplishment than seeing how some of the people you interacted with in their earlier years have gone on to make significant contributions.

What are the most challenging aspects of mentoring?

Mentoring means living through your mentees' experiences – and that includes their disappointments.

Dealing with success is easy; dealing with failures is something that often needs to be taught or learned through experience. To some extent, you can help trainees learn how to deal with some of these circumstances, but I think the role of the mentor at that point is to sit down, be quiet, and let people vent their frustrations over not accomplishing what they wanted. There are times to preach and there are times to listen – this is one of those times to listen, and then listen some more. And then keep listening.

What other advice would you give colleagues about mentorship?

When I was chairman of the Department of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, I once described mentorship this way: "When you train a lot of young people, you look at your career in retrospect, as almost a polymerase chain reaction (PCR)." What I mean by this is, as a mentor, a small number of things can become tremendously magnified. Small efforts can have a huge impact on a large number of trainees. It's what I call the PCR of leadership.

Someone once asked me if he should seriously consider becoming a chair or head of a division, and I said, "If you look at your career in terms of the PCR, I would say do it."

What has mentoring taught you in your life?

It's taught me how important it is to relate to people in a meaningful way. There are formal aspects of mentoring we adhere to, but much of it is based on interpersonal relationships – who you are, how you relate to people, and your enjoyment in watching people grow and succeed.


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