Riffell Mentoring Philosophy
General Mentoring Philosophy: Young scientists and students are indispensable for a successful and exciting lab. Incoming scientists – whether undergraduate, graduate, or postdoctorate – bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the laboratory. By contrast, more seasoned lab members provide important mentoring and a historical foundation to help test hypotheses and provide methodological training. In particularly, a “mentoring ladder” is critical for the success of any lab, and I try to provide a supportive environment where young scientists can explore exciting topics while gaining interdisciplinary training in diverse methodologies. This latter point is an important one, and one where I’ve benefitted from having fantastic postdoctoral and senior graduate student colleagues who’ve provided effective mentoring for scientists at a variety of educational levels. My mentoring experience includes methodological training (sensory neurobiology, central nervous system recordings, chemical analytical methods, behavioral and advanced quantitative analyses), as well as providing co-advising and training of undergraduates, graduates and postdoctorates. Over the years, I’ve tried to create a lab environment that is built on the foundations of open communication and discovery- and excitement-driven science.
Postdocs: Postdocs are vital for a successful lab, and I have been extremely lucky to have had fantastic postdoctoral colleagues who not only are excellent scientists but are also fantastic mentors. I consider postdocs in my lab to be my colleagues. My expectation of postdocs include that they manage their time and research, to effectively prioritize their responsibilities, to pursue funding opportunities, and demonstrate leadership in the lab, which includes mentoring and helping graduate and undergraduate students. In addition, postdocs assist me in organizing lab activities (lab meetings, social activities). In all cases, open communication is important. My reference frame for mentoring postdocs is to teach new scientific methods, and provide mentoring in teaching, grant writing, mentoring and project management, with the goal to provide an environment where the postdoc reaches the final stage of becoming an independent researcher.
Graduate students: I am part of the Department of Biology and Graduate Program in Neuroscience, and both programs offer excellent training for graduate students in interdisciplinary research. In general, my laboratory uses diverse approaches including those with chemical, sensory biological, neurobiological, behavioral, and ecological foci. For this reason, my students have benefitted from the interdisciplinary research at the University of Washington. It is common for my students to have committee members in the Departments of Chemistry, Physiology, Applied Mathematics, and Engineering, as well as my own department (Biology). As with my postdoctorates, I encourage an environment that involves open communication. This is structured around weekly meetings and an ‘open door’ policy. One of the things that makes me happy is to mentor and train the next generation of scientists.
In general, my expectations of graduate students involves: (1) that they are excited and curious of the natural world and the organisms around them; (2) that they recognize an unsuccessful experiment or a failed hypothesis is not reflective of their self-worth (indeed, unsuccessful experiments are the norm, and should be treated with a combination of ‘pulling up the sleeves’ and excitement for examining a problem in a new light); (3) that they take full advantage of the expertise and resources around them, and they take responsibility for their project, which includes understanding the literature and gaining experience in the experimental methods. By the time you graduate, point #3 will be critical because you will need to be both self-sufficient and self-motivated to accomplish your career goals. (4) An important part of a safe and supportive lab is one where everyone treats each other with respect and kindness. This is particularly important for cases where ethnic, cultural or philosophical differences may exist.
I encourage my graduate students to travel and attend national and international meetings (Gordon Research Conferences, International Congress for Neuroethology, Society for Neuroscience, International Meeting for Chemical Ecology, Entomological Society of America, Association for Chemoreception Sciences, Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, etc…). In addition, I support students that seek training in summer courses (e.g., Friday Harbor Laboratories, or Marine Biological Laboratory, others) and visiting collaborators in other labs to gain new experience and techniques.
At times, working on your PhD can seem a long and arduous process, while at other times it can be extremely joyous and go by too quickly. In other words, there are peaks and valleys. I encourage my students to be honest with themselves (and me) regarding their mental health. It’s not a mistake to seek help when life seems overwhelming. Ph.D projects can also be difficult, with failed experiments the norm. But I try to guide students to have alternate strategies when their hypothesis fails, or when their project seems to be in danger. Ultimately, however, the student is the person responsible for the project, and that it often takes a lot of bandwidth to get the project going and keep the momentum.
Undergraduate students: Undergraduates are an important part of the lab. We typically train ~5 undergraduates per year. Undergraduates are provided a graduate student or postdoctoral mentor who provides training on different techniques or bioassays. Undergraduates typically start out as ‘volunteers’ before gaining research credits or paid opportunities. An important part of working in the lab is balancing coursework with the research experience; we ask that students spend approximately 10 h/week in the lab.