In praise of mentorship

Sir Philip Campbell 
is editor-in-chief of the science journal Nature

Tell us a little about your background and qualifications
I have a BSc in aeronautical engineering, an MSc in astrophysics and a PhD and postdoctoral research in upper atmospheric physics.
I loved my research in atmospheric physics, but found myself increasingly interested in broader scientific questions. I was lucky to get a job as a junior editor at Nature, where I handled papers across all the physical sciences. After several years I moved to the UK’s Institute of Physics to set up Physics World in 1988. In 1995 I returned to Nature as editor-in-chief.
I have worked with the UK Office of Science and Innovation, the European Commission and the US National Institutes of Health on issues relating to science and its impacts in society. For 10 years until 2012, I was a trustee of Cancer Research UK, and am now chair of the research funding charity ‘MQ: transforming mental health’. I’m a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics.

Why did Nature set up the Mentoring in Science Awards?
Nature established these awards in 2005. We’ve taken them all over the world, including in the UK, Australasia, South Africa, Germany, Japan, Canada, France, the Nordic countries, Italy, Ireland and Northern Ireland, China, and the United States. This year each winner received a prize of US $10,000.
The premise behind creating the awards was that the mentorship of early-career researchers – although fully deserving of recognition  – receives less attention than other lab-based activities that take place in the lab. We wanted to champion the importance of mentoring and inspire other scientists to give it greater priority.
Each year we invite nominations for a mid-career and lifetime achievement award. To be eligible, a nominee must be working in any discipline within the national sciences in the chosen region, and be supported by five researchers for whom they have been mentor. Each of them must submit written testimonials.

Why is mentoring so important to you?
Good mentorship helps to ensure that younger scientists understand the ethos of good science: strongly self-critical thinking; high technical standards of robustness; high standards of ethical integrity; and the combination of critical thinking with collegiality in their working relationship with others.

Has the advent of technology made mentoring more important?
Yes, the personal touch and the supportive and inspiring relationship between a good supervisor and a more junior colleague is irreplaceable. A good mentor is able to make a judgement based on the personality of the mentee as well as on scientific considerations. For example, mentees will respond to critical comments in very different ways, and a good mentor makes the judgement call about how best to give feedback, accordingly. A good mentor also knows when to assist the mentee on a technical challenge and when, instead, to hang back and allow the mentee to take the lead. This requires good personal interactions.
But technology can also be a great enabler of mentoring. Today, researchers who are thousands of miles apart can communicate in ways that simply weren’t possible 20 years ago. A researcher stationed abroad working on a project can stay in touch with their supervisor, and relationships can be built by scientists at different institutions.
For example, we heard how Julie Overbaugh – based in Seattle and winner of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award – has worked closely with the Kenya Research Program over many years. She has been praised for her role in helping to develop the careers of many young scientists in Kenya, both in person and remotely.

If there was one piece of advice for young scientists, what would it be?
In looking for a place to undertake a PhD or a postdoc, do not just look at the scientific output of the lab. Try as well to find out about the reputation of the lab leader for engaging with his or her lab members. We hope that the Nature mentoring awards will help send those signals!

How do these awards fit with Nature Research’s wider activities as a publisher?
I see our involvement in the Mentoring Awards as part of a wider effort to support the whole research community. This can be in providing services that they want, but it can also be by taking the lead on the issues that matter. Recognising outstanding mentors, and encouraging more researchers to follow their lead, is certainly one of those. 

Interview by Tim Gillett