Campus Life the secret life of researchers

Becoming a mentor

Lessons learned from a pro

“True education does not consist merely in the acquiring of a few facts of science, history, literature, or art, but in the development of character.”

—David O. McKay

As graduate students, we have been molded by our teachers and our mentors over the past decade of education and are currently (and hopefully!) engaged in one of the most intense mentorship experiences of our lives. We are essentially apprenticed with a researcher and learn all the skills — asking good questions, figuring out how to answer them, troubleshooting equipment failures, writing well, reviewing well, teaching, etc. — that are important in academia. While we are and have been on the mentee side, we are also in training to become mentors ourselves. Sometimes we get a flavor of this through teaching assistantships or working with undergraduates in the laboratory, but I hope that we can embrace learning to mentor as a critical part of our education. We are training to inspire, develop, and mold the students of the future, just as our mentors inspired and helped us along the way.

One of my high school mentors recently passed away, which made me think about how he embodied mentorship as a lifestyle and exemplified many of the qualities that great teachers possess. I want to share some of the lessons I learned from my high school physics teacher, Mr. Malkovsky.

1) It’s more of a lifestyle than an activity.

Mr. Mal was always there for his students, after school and before school. He didn’t wait for us to come to him; he volunteered his time and energy when it looked like we needed help. He ran our physics Olympics and Science Olympiad teams, which meant he was always in his room surrounded by students building things, doing calculations, or organizing events. He was there to talk to if you wanted advice about careers or managing stress. He let us call him — at any time — about physics problems. I remember calling from physics study group late one night after we’d been jumping off chairs, trying to understand how the momentum could be transferred in a collision; Mr. Mal answered cheerfully and helped us get through the problem.

2) Recognize good work but also equip your students to achieve that good work.

Mr. Mal always recognized good work and motivated us to actually learn and understand the material. After I graduated, he personally purchased plaques for the hallway outside his room to acknowledge students who had taken the AP exam. In the classroom, he made tests and problem sets really hard, but if you did poorly and then went through and re-did the exam correctly, he would give you half the points you had lost back. He really made the emphasis on learning and understanding. He never shied away from making us actually derive equations and never made things easier for us. He set the bar high and believed we could get there. However, he didn’t just leave us hanging. When we worked in his room, trying to design a good experiment, he’d walk through the problem with us and ask probing questions to help us get there ourselves.

3) Outside stresses can make or break you.

He understood this and provided support for us just as much in academics as in personal support. I remember one time I was determined to stay in class — despite being obviously ill — so I could take my AP physics exam, so Mr. Mal walked me to the guidance office and told them to take care of rescheduling my exam and under no circumstances to let me take it that day. I wasn’t able to make that call myself, but it was definitely the best move. He always challenged me to make choices that made me happy, even if they were hard and scary — like applying to MIT. The first time I came back to visit and Mr. Mal said “you look really happy,” I realized how far I had come and how much he had helped me to get there.

I know that I, as a some-day academic, have a huge amount of work to do to be the kind of mentor that changes lives like Mr. Mal did. In 63 years, he inspired so many students to believe that they could tackle problems we didn’t at first believe we could and pursue fields like engineering and math. We’ve ended up at places like MIT, Yale, Princeton, UVA, Virginia Tech, RPI, UPenn, and many more. Thank you, Mr. Mal, for showing me how to make the most out of life, pushing me to help others do the same, and teaching me how to be a true mentor.