The Art of Being a Mentor
A mentor teaches you, but is much more than a teacher. A mentor befriends you, but is much more than a friend. A mentor guides you, but is much more than a guide.
I had already been dazzled by the awesome scholarship of his writings when I first met Avedis Donabedian in person at a landmark conference held in Mexico in 1978. I was immediately struck by the almost saintly aura that surrounded him. When I finally gathered the courage to talk to him, I was met by a warm human being, who shattered the image of a distant professor-priest that my own immaturity had constructed about him. I made up my mind there and then to pursue my graduate studies under his mentorship.
What followed was almost a quarter of a century of joyful discovery of Avedis's privileged mind, of his passion for language, of his poetic vein, of his spiritual depth. In a few words, of his human quality.
In our age of mass education, the mentor has become an endangered academic species. Most of my classmates did not have a real mentor. A mentor teaches you, but is much more than a teacher. A mentor befriends you, but is much more than a friend. A mentor guides you, but is much more than a guide.
What a mentor does is one of the greatest gifts of generosity. He sows in your mind and in your soul the seeds that will nourish intellect and spirit for the rest of your life.
This is what Avedis gave me. Yes, he taught me what I know about health care. Yes, he enriched me with his friendship. Yes, he guided me in many of the most crucial decisions of my life. But he gave me much more. He opened his mind, his heart, and his soul to me, and in so doing he gave me a glimpse of what true human greatness can be.
I count myself among those who received most from Avedis. Not one day goes by when I do not enjoy the fruits of the many seeds that he, my mentor, sowed in my mind and in my soul. Avedis Donabedian's physical disappearance has not extinguished his bright light. Every day it illuminates the path of many, many of us. For that, I thank him.
—Julio Frenk, M.D., M.P.H. '81, Ph.D. '83
Avedis Donabedian was the Nathan Sinai Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Public Health at SPH and an internationally renowned scholar specializing in quality assessment. Julio Frenk is a senior fellow in the global health program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a past executive director of the World Health Organization and Minister of Health of Mexico. He serves on the external advisory council of the UM Center for Global Health. In January, he will become dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. These remarks are adapted from the eulogy Frenk delivered at a memorial service for Donabedian following his death on November 9, 2000.
When I started working with Arnold Monto, he didn't say, "OK, I'm your professor, here's what I'm going to teach you, and you have to come to me for approval for everything." Immediately his expectation of me was to be his colleague—although as a beginning doctoral student I was nowhere near his equal. I would have to learn to think things through carefully and make my own decisions, as I would if I were an independent academic researcher. At times that was a little frightening, because most of the risk of mistakes or bad decisions was on me, and yes, there were times when I messed up or made bad decisions.
Even though Arnold was always there to support me and help me think through problems and come up with solutions, his continual pushing me to think for myself inspired me to become a strong and independent scientist early in my career. Unlike some students who graduate knowing a lot of about an academic discipline but really aren't ready to do it, when I graduated from SPH, I was ready to direct every aspect of my own research studies. Now, working for a global health nonprofit, I am responsible for eight trials in 12 developing countries in Africa and Asia. Excitingly, I am also principal investigator for a new CDC–funded project to study influenza and influenza vaccine in a developing country, and so I am now really Arnold's colleague in the academic world. I can't think of a better compliment to my former mentor than to join him at the "influenza table" and to continue learning from him.
—John "Chris" Victor, MPH '97, PhD '04; Epidemiologist and Clinical Trials Advisor, PATH (Program for Appropriate Technology in Health)
As a doctoral student and postgraduate senior research associate, Chris Victor collaborated with SPH Professor Arnold Monto on a CDC–funded trial of hepatitis A vaccine and on an NIH–funded trial of influenza vaccines. Monto is a specialist in respiratory and enteric viruses and infectious diseases in developing countries, and a leader in vaccine testing.
At the end of my class in public health lab practice with my mentor, Pearl Kendrick, we were each supposed to prepare a notebook of the lab procedures that she'd handed out in class. Well, before I came to Michigan, I'd been in the Sixth Army Medical Lab, and over the years I'd accumulated a manual of laboratory procedures that must have been two or three inches thick. Maybe I was a little biased, but I decided not to turn in the little notebook I'd accumulated in class. So one day as I was walking somewhere after school, Pearl stopped me and said, "You didn't turn in your assignment."
I said, "Well, I've been doing this for the last few years, with every course I've taken. Chemistry, microbiology, parasitology. I just thought it wasn't necessary."
She said, "It was an assignment." The conversation ended there. When I got my final
grades, she'd given me a B. Other than that I had straight A's—all the way through
SPH. I still graduated Delta Omega, but there was that one B, and it was from my mentor.
She could have failed me. I never forgot that. It was her way of letting me know,
"An assignment is an assignment."
—Samuel Ettman, MPH '56
Samuel Ettman is a former outreach program manager for the University of Miami (Florida) Reference Laboratory; prior to that he directed a manufacturing export company for diagnostics and laboratory equipment in South America. The late Pearl Kendrick, who taught at SPH from 1951 to 1960, helped pioneer the development of an effective vaccine for whooping cough.
I first met Sharon Greene in 2000, when she joined the master's program in epidemiology at Michigan. I met Justin Cohen two years later in that same context. They were two of the brightest, most committed and capable students that I've ever worked with. As their academic mentor, I got to know them in different ways through their research interests, both as MPH students and then as doctoral students, and in the course of our exchanges, I had the joy of seeing them grow as sensitive, thoughtful, and caring people.
At a party celebrating Justin's dissertation defense last year, Sharon and Justin pulled me aside and said, "Mark, we have something really important that we'd like to share with you, and we hope you're agreeable to this." They then told me they were engaged and said, "We would like you to marry us." I was overwhelmed with honor and said yes—although I didn't know what that implied.
On May 24, 2008, after receiving special legal permission, I solemnized the marriage of Sharon Greene and Justin Cohen. I've been a professor for many years, but I had never officiated at a wedding. In the first role, as a professor, I helped two individual students move forward in their training and careers. In the second role, I helped two students move forward in their lives together, something that I'd never done before.
Being given the honor of marrying them was also a recognition of the trust that our program engenders here at Michigan. I was their mentor, and they allowed me to be part of their now-united lives.
—Mark Wilson, Professor of Epidemiology, SPH
Sharon Greene, M.P.H. '02, Ph.D. '05, is an epidemiologist for the Department of Ambulatory Care and Prevention, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Harvard Medical School. Her husband, Justin Cohen, M.P.H.'04, Ph.D. '07, is a senior research associate for the Center for Strategic HIV Operations Research with the William J. Clinton Foundation HIV/AIDS Initiative. At their wedding last May, they named the reception tables after noted epidemiologists and scientists. The bride and groom sat at the Thomas Francis Jr. table, to honor the school that had brought them together.
Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." This quotation, one of my favorites, seems to contain a succinct truth: it suggests that wisdom must be generated from one's own path through the purgatory created by bad choices.
On the other hand, mentoring offers a way to squeeze maximum learning from past episodes of both good and bad judgment, and to provide shortcuts through that steep (and sometimes difficult) learning curve to "experience." With the distance of time, a mentor can put her own decisions into perspective, extract lessons learned, and offer considered guidance.
I suspect that most of us mentor in the ways we were mentored. For me, the protocol includes nurturing (especially after a setback), coaching, and nudging into uncomfortable places; allowing enough uninterrupted time to discuss issues thoroughly—with an agenda set by the student; providing the feedback that allows important learning to occur; and recognizing that the student must decide which course best fits his own values, beliefs, or "style."
While mentoring seems quite altruistic, contributing to the next generation's skills and knowledge actually rewards the mentor with great satisfaction. For me, nothing is better than watching professionals I've mentored accomplish things that I know I could never do.
—Dolores Malvitz, M.P.H. '72, Dr.P.H.'74
Before her retirement in 2004, Dolores Malvitz was the surveillance and research team leader in the Division of Oral Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, at the CDC. She estimates that during her 35 years in public health she mentored at least two dozen students and colleagues.
I met "Doc" [SPH Associate Professor Richard Lichtenstein] in 1986 when I applied for what was then the Summer Placement Opportunity Program. I was 17, and he rejected me because he said I was too young. (I like to remind him of that, often.) I applied again in '87 and was accepted. He and the summer program opened my eyes to a whole new career path. I was a typical kid coming to Michigan from Detroit—meaning my dad worked for the autos, my mom was a schoolteacher—so we were kind of that basic, middle-class family, and I was coming to Michigan to be a doctor, like most of the other black kids. But Doc was so passionate about the disparities in health care—why people of color have so much more chronic disease than the white population, why our outcomes from disease are so much worse. He was equally passionate about disparities in health care management—why a hospital in a major urban center had few (or no!) people of color in positions of responsibility, for example. Doc's passion ignited me. I realized that by going into administration, I could impact more people more broadly.
I'm not the kind of person that lets people into my private life easily, but Doc has been with me throughout my adult life. He was at my college graduation and of course my grad school graduation. He was at my wedding. He came to the hospital when my daughter was born, two-and-a-half months prematurely. He was at her christening when she turned a year old. He was very supportive of me during my divorce. He was at my second wedding. Everywhere Calloway—my daddy—was, Doc was. The only thing my daddy was doing that Doc didn't do was paying my rent! When I lost what I thought was my dream job, Doc was with me then too, talking me through and helping me heal and refocus on getting that next job. He has been with me every step of the way.
—Joy D. Calloway-McIntosh, M.H.S.A. '92; Director, Community Programs, St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital, Pontiac, Michigan.
A former graduate student of Richard Lichtenstein and former program manager for the Summer Enrichment Program, Joy Calloway now serves on the program's admissions and orientation committees. Lichtenstein conducts research in health disparities, access to care, and discrimination in health care.
One of my most important lessons came from Dick Cornell, who as chair of the Department of Biostatistics recruited me to Michigan in 1984. Twenty months after we arrived in Ann Arbor, my wife, Betsy Foxman, gave birth to our first son, David. A few months later, I commented to Dick on how difficult it was to find time for family, work, and some sleep. Dick smiled at me and said that no matter what else we did, to be sure we enjoyed that time with David, since work would always be there, but that David would grow up much too quickly. Hearing this advice from my respected and successful chair, and seeing from his smile that he meant the advice sincerely, and that he had lived his own life that way too, made a real impression on me, and made me a better father.
There are many reasons that when I was named a Collegiate and then Distinguished University Professor I named my position after Dick, but that advice was one of the most important.
—Michael Boehnke, Richard G. Cornell Collegiate Professor of Biostatistics, SPH
SPH Professor Emeritus Richard G. Cornell taught at Michigan from 1971 to 1996. He designed the first controlled clinical trial to evaluate the efficacy of extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for treating newborns with respiratory distress.
Tom Robins's longstanding commitment to the development of occupational health in Southern Africa, particularly South Africa, has been the seed to our relationship for the past 15 years.
I first worked with Tom as a colleague and then, with funding from a Fogarty grant, as a doctoral student. As my advisor, Tom was readily available at the end of a computer to discuss issues via e-mail, or to have telephonic meetings at odd hours of the day and night about field issues, data analysis, or the dissertation itself.
Tom has a keen sense of perfection, and while some supervisors may err by giving inadequate input, Tom always made sure that his comments were detailed and challenging—allowing me, as a student, to continually up my game without becoming frustrated. When answers were not within my means, Tom, through his extensive network of colleagues, was always able to identify the necessary resources to resolve any academic dilemma. And he achieved this despite being located halfway across the world!
—Rajen Naidoo, M.P.H. '98, Ph.D. '02, Chair and Associate Professor, Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, Nelson Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
SPH Professor Tom Robins directs a National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center grant to develop human resource capacity in environmental and occupational health in the 14-nation Southern Africa Development Community.
My interest was always adolescent health, so when I started my M.P.H. I asked Marc Zimmerman to be my advisor. It was one of the smartest moves I made. He really took an interest in making sure that I got out of school what I needed, and he helped make that happen—and that wasn't just writing a paper and having him correct it (although he did plenty of that!). It was about networking and meeting people and making relationships and understanding the population. Marc set up an internship for me at an adolescent health center in Flint, and that got me connected with teens and sexual health and a lot of the issues I'm working on today. It gave me connections to people I ended up working for later and some whom I continue to work with today.
One thing that helped me a lot in school was Marc's energy—he loves what he does. He was really accessible to me, from helping with internships during school, to making connections after I graduated, to just having conversations about public health. The funny thing about us connecting is that he's so research-focused, and I'm not—I'm much more about practice. And our specific areas aren't the same—he studies resilience and youth violence, and I study sexual health. But we have the same passion for the population.
—Nicole Adelman, M.P.H. '95, Vice President of Education, Planned Parenthood Mid and South Michigan
Marc Zimmerman is professor and chair of the SPH Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, professor of psychology, and a research scientist with the UM Center for Human Growth and Development. He directs the CDC–funded Prevention Research Center of Michigan. Nicole Adelman serves on the UM SPH Alumni Society Board of Governors.
Send YOUR mentorship story or correspondence about this or any Findings article to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. You will be contacted if your letter or story is considered for publication.
MaryFran Sowers is just inspiring to be around. She consistently thinks outside the box and is truly unencumbered by current scientific dogma. As a seasoned researcher, she supervises, mentors, and collaborates with professionals who have wide-ranging skills and backgrounds, and frankly, she often functions as a translator between these individuals. In a typical research meeting, she might fill in gaps for those without a statistics background, and in the next breath, explain the relevance of antimullerian hormone in postmenopausal women for those without a clinical background.
MaryFran has helped me recognize strengths that I wasn't fully aware of, including
a strong conceptual approach to science and an ability to seek out and collaborate
with people of diverse backgrounds and disciplines. I relied heavily on both of these
skills when applying for my first NIH award, a cross-disciplinary grant between the
Department of Epidemiology and the UM School of Natural Resources.
—KT Tomey, Assistant Research Scientist, UM SPH Department of Epidemiology
Epidemiologist MaryFran Sowers is the John G. Searle Professor of Public Health at UM SPH, director of the Center for Integrated Approaches to Complex Diseases, and an adjunct professor of both internal medicine and obstetrics/gynecology at the UM Medical School.
It's been said that a theory is only as good as its application to practice. In my SPH training, I was blessed to have the perfect blend of theory and practice in Scott Simonds, professor, and Nan Stout, the practitioner who served as my internship advisor. Like Batman and Robin, this dynamic duo helped to launch my career in health care settings and have guided me through some "dark nights" when theory and practice seem incompatible.
Scott had the gift of making complex health behavior theories come to life with the most intriguing case studies and stories. As the best educators do, he challenged us not only to recite the textbook theory but also to reflect critically on the ethical consequences of our actions.
Nan Stout [left, with Elaine Auld] picked up where Scott left off, guiding our nascent encounter of theory meets practice. Fond memories include Nan organizing meetings with other VA summer interns to discuss our successes and challenges, and enjoying leisurely intern dinners at her home to reflect on our career aspirations and the health education profession. I have always remained in touch with both Scott and Nan, and I credit them for my metamorphosis from a theoretical student to a practicing professional.
—Elaine Auld, M.P.H. '78, is executive director of the Society for Public Health Education in Washington D.C., and president of the UM SPH Alumni Society Board of Governors.
My very first encounter with Elaine Auld was probably not positive from her point of view. I'd set up a phone interview with her to do my capstone paper in college and didn't realize there was a time change. When I called her, she said very matter-of-factly, "You're an hour late. I'm on East Coast time." I was so embarrassed.
Later that year I wound up doing an internship in policy with Elaine. She's a very busy, focused, energetic woman, so she was good to watch in terms of how to act in the workplace. I learned a lot, which I've since applied to my work in management. For instance, I learned how to give others opportunities and entrust them to do things that seem very intimidating. At one point during my internship, Elaine said to me, "I want you to write this hand-gun resolution." And I said, "I'm sure I'm not qualified for this." And she responded, "Yes, you are."
The thing I remember most is that she made me put together a portfolio. She provided time during my internship for me to work on it, and then she edited it, which was key. She also helped prep me for my interview, both with questions and coaching on etiquette. I very distinctly remember sitting in the board room during an interview and saying, "Would you like to see some samples of my work?" The members of the interview committee told me after I got the job that no other candidate had come in as prepared or as serious as I was about landing the position.
—Robyn Lee, M.P.H. '02, Vice President for Business Development, Advocate Health Centers, Oak
Elaine Auld, MPH '78, is executive director of the Society for Public Health Education in Washington D.C., and president of the UM SPH Alumni Society Board of Governors. Robyn Lee joined the board last year.
My first year at UM SPH was a challenge. I had no experience in health care, except for a four-month job as a pharmacy assistant at the age of 16. Ninety percent of my fellow students in what was then the Department of Medical Care Organization were much older, experienced in health services, clinically and/or managerially, and many had other graduate degrees. It was hard to compete. I blew the core MCO 100 class with a B-minus. My teacher, Sy Axelrod, having apparently seen the potential in me, gave me the opportunity to do a full semester of independent study with him on my topic of choice to compensate for the grade.
I chose to write and research weekly papers on HMO concepts. Somewhere after that first year at UM SPH, I knew I wanted to work for an HMO. Sy challenged me. He challenged me to write better, speak with authority, and be assertive. But more than anything, he encouraged me to care about the health state of poor people, of minority people, of black people. Having been on the Michigan campus as an undergrad, during the latter part of the turmoil of the late Sixties, there wasn't much he had to do to encourage me when it came to minorities and the poor—but I had never equated our economic condition with health status.
A few years after I graduated, I got my dream job with Kaiser in California. I've worked for many corporations since then, but I have never forgotten my public health roots, which Sy helped to instill in me. In every position that I have held, Sy holds some of the responsiblity for my success. I will always be grateful to him for the opportunity he gave a green yet assertive, high-achieving Michigan undergrad from the inner city of Detroit.
—Shelley Meriweather-Ferrand, M.H.S.A. '77, Director of Managed Care and Network Operations, US Oncology
A beloved teacher and pragmatic activist, the late Sy Axelrod devoted his career to developing programs that would improve the delivery of medical care. He was the first chair of the Department of Medical Care Organization at UM SPH.