Becoming the Mentor I Want to Be vs. the Mentor I Need to Be

And how to not ask questions like a girl…

Last week I attended a memorial for a physician and scientist in my field. This man had died far too young, but despite his short life, had made some incredible contributions to our discipline. The main purpose of this ceremony was that, in honor of his work and achievements, our university was naming a research center after him.

During the ceremony, many of the scientists that he had trained got up to speak about him. There was a recurrent theme in their remarks. He had a “quiet dignity” and was “strong.” He “gave his students the freedom to make their own mistakes.” He was “unflappable.” It was just so darned sad. Seeing the people he had touched and how his premature departure had impacted them. It was hard not to get little weepy and, as we have already established, I am not a cute crier.

I went back to my office and sat at my desk awhile. That afternoon, I thought a lot about my own mortality and, specifically, how I might want to be remembered someday at my own memorial after having been very famous. And, I came to an important conclusion. 

Figure 1: An artist’s representation of how Dr. Isis comes to a conclusion. (source)

As much as I liked the idea of someday being remembered as the person who had a “quiet dignity” about her, I can never be that kind of mentor. And if I had personally had only those types of mentors, I would have been a failure as a scientist.

More truthfully, I would never have become a scientist.

As a graduate student, I didn’t begin on the pathway pre-destined for success. I was the first in my family to finish college. I grew up the impoverished offspring of my drug-addled mother, and I survived adolescence largely because of the grace and tenacity of my South American grandmother. She waited up for me every night, kept me out of trouble, and made sure I was the recipient of plenty of “angry Spanish”

But, I was a horrible undergraduate. I really didn’t see the point of it all. I took a few years off in the middle until I met the man who would ultimately be my husband and he pointed out, very pragmatically, that if I returned for two semesters, I could be finished. I’d have a degree and that would open doors for me. I went back largely because he was adorable and I really had nothing better to do.

A few years later, he decided that we were going to graduate school. We applied to several programs, settled on one, and away we went. I had no idea what the balls I was doing. I won’t say that floundered, but I certainly didn’t flourish.

Figure 2: Ok, I floundered a bit. (source)

I really had no idea what the balls I was doing. I didn’t understand how the game was played and my head was much too far up my own ass to figure out how naive I was. 

I had no idea how to uncork my cranium, either. I did know that there was one female professor in my department I had been told to avoid. “She’s a bitch,” my male colleagues told me. “She is unreasonable.” “She will bust your nuts about every damned thing.” I avoided her like the plague. Eventually, I had to take a class with her and couldn’t avoid her any more.

She absolutely changed my life.

I’ve been struggling for the last week to think about how to write about her. Anything I’ve come up with seems like trite bullshittery, but I truly owe my career to her. My male colleagues were right. She was really, really hard on me. She busted my nuts for every flaw. Every typo on a slide. Every poorly worded answer. She sought out those imperfections like a heat-seeking, estrogen-tipped missile and blew them the fuck up. 

And I resented her for it. I hated her for it. Until I got it.

One day we were in seminar. I raised my hand and asked the longest, most rambling question you have ever heard. I qualified every statement with, “I’m not sure if this is right…” or “You probably know more about this than me…” I thought it was polite to be deferential to this man. The speaker was very polite and answered my question. After seminar I left the room and she stormed after me. She grabbed my arm, and I turned to her. Completely stunned.

Then she grabbed me by the shoulders and literally shook me. She raised her voice and said, “What the hell is the matter with you with that question? You had a good question and you shat all over it! You were the only girl that asked a question, but the only thing you let people here think is that you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about! You can’t do that!”

In that moment I realized that she was so hard on me because it had been so hard on her. She knew that the rules were different for men and women. Flaws in men are things that the training process will correct. Flaws in women are signs that we don’t belong there. Modesty in men is a sign of humility or a Socratic nature. In women, it signals a lack of confidence or understanding. She knew that if I was going to be successful, I needed to harden the fuck up and learn to play the game. That day I realized that she was so hard on me because she cared about me and wanted to see me succeed. After that day, I relished her criticism. I watched everything she did like a hawk and I strove to be more like her than the person that I was.

Now that I have younger, ovaried people looking to me for guidance, I realize that this is the type of mentor that I need to be for them. I’ll admit that I have sometimes been harder on women that I have thought had potential. I’ve been less tolerant of their flaws and have harassed them more diligently. I’ve challenged them more publicly and I have tried to eliminate the qualifiers from their language. No more “I don’t know if” or “You might know more about this”. I have nixed pink slides and have made them go through more iterations and edits than they would ever have cared to. 

As a result, I struggle a bit with my image. I try very hard to balance my expectations with positivity, although I know I don’t always succeed. Yet, one of the greatest moments in my career happened recently when I heard a new student ask a more senior student, “What is with her? She is such a bitch sometimes.” The more senior student replied, “She’ll be really hard on you, but it’s only because she wants you to be great. She’s not especially warm, or a hugger, but she wants to make you amazing.”

I’ve come to learn that I need to think of science as a race and that, if these ladies want to win, they’re going to need to run faster than most. As a mentor, sometimes I am going to need to run hard and clear the way through the pack for them. Sometimes I am going to have to get behind them and push. Push hard and make them get to their goal. To keep pushing, even when they think they can’t…

I had a mentor who blazed the trail for me and then grabbed me firmly by the hand, dragging me along until I figured out how to run behind her. Now it’s my job to make sure that everybody comes along.

Quiet dignity be damned.