Mentoring at BU Medical: What, when, where, why, how?

So what is Mentoring?

Mentoring is the verb describing the action of a more senior person in a given area of expertise entering into a relationship with a more junior colleague for the purpose of advising and fostering advancement of the less experienced individual.

As individuals during our training, we can and should seek out mentors who have mastered skill sets that we wish to learn. However the expectation that one person can embody each and everything we need to master for our chosen career path is unrealistic. We should try to gain experience from peers, experts and those senior to us for maximum benefit. These relationships can help us to network, build contacts and to seek out the training or experiences we need to build a successful career.

Many associations offer mentoring in small groups or online and we have modeled our program partially on the highly successful Mass-AWIS group mentoring circles.

This Fall, starting in October, the Postdoctoral Office and Postdoctoral Affair committee would like to give BU medical/BMC and BU Postdocs the opportunity to participate in small group mentoring circles of 3-5 mentees that will be paired with 1-2 mentors. This will be a forum for career exploration, self-discovery and a safe and confidential space to seek advice and varied perspectives. We hope that groups will get to know one another, become each others advocates and accountability partners. A commitment to attend and participate in six monthly sessions will be required, as well as setting personal and group goals. We will attempt to match individuals based on interest areas and have already recruited some great mentors from Academia and Industry. Please tell us if you have specific areas of interest you would like to explore in a circle so we can be responsive to your needs.

Join us for the Celebration of the completion of the first round of BU Postdoctoral mentoring circles on August 25th 5-6 PM to find out more or email Cristina Vazquez Mateo or Ayesha Islam

the end

Since I am leaving BU, I will no longer update the postdoc blog. If you are interested in taking it up, please contact Yolanta and she will set you up.

This only applies to postdocs at Boston University.



Mentoring has recently become a commonly used buzzword within academic science. Everybody should have it and everybody should have experience providing it. Even NIH now strongly encourages well-structured mentoring plans for postdocs and PhD students in grant applications, and these plans are as important as the science  in fellowship applications. There are many organizations that offer mentoring and workshops about mentoring in the Boston area or online. In the old days, up until about 10-15 years ago, mentoring for scientists was done for better or worse by their principal investigator (PI). Mentoring programs for minority scientists were sometimes available, these normally stopped as soon as they complete their undergraduate studies or even earlier.

Letting PIs do the mentoring was a good idea when science was much more like a trade or art. The master (it doesn’t really matter if it is a baker, a painter or a bench scientist) teaches the apprentice everything she knows and after some time the apprentice goes out into the world and becomes a master of her own.

But modern science is no longer like learning a trade, now science is done in large teams and the PIs are seldom still proficient in the lab. The master-apprentice relationship is nowadays between young PhD students and postdocs or technicians, who teach them the “trade”. In the trade analogy, the PI is now more of the customer, who wants something very specific done and most importantly pays for it, while the people in the lab have to figure out how to do it. Traditionally the master knew the apprentice, they worked together closely and often the masters were involved in the student’s lives, but modern PIs are seldom in the lab anymore. Resulting in the PI being unable to “mentor” the student or postdoc in the traditional sense, by helping them grow as scientists and as people.

Today mentoring includes access to the PIs network, help in navigating departmental and inter-institutional politics and hopefully development of social networking skills.  At some point somebody realized that the traditional mentoring system doesn’t work so well any more, so they introduced the idea of mentoring teams and mentoring plans. Both ideas are pretty good on paper, but the practical implementation of these is often not so easy.

Let’s look at mentoring plans first; those PIs, who are not good mentors, do not magically become good mentors because they have to fill in another box in their grant applications. BU is offering workshops on how to have a good mentoring relationship. However, the big issue here, is that these workshops are offered for PhD students and postdocs; they teach us how to be good mentees. This is important too, but you can be the best mentee in the world, set agendas, set goals and meeting times and have precise questions for the mentor but if the mentor has no idea what he is doing or has no real interest in you, then very little can be achieved. There are workshops for faculty, but they are not compulsory. Hopefully the next generation of PIs (us) will hopefully be better prepared for being a mentor.

Mentoring teams sound great on paper, you assemble a group of wise elders that give you advice on your work and allow you to profit from their network, maybe also help you out with reagents. But that is not how it works in reality. For a successful application you need a mentoring team of experts in your field. Experts are busy people, why would they mentor you? They are also nice people, so quite a few experts will agree to be your mentor, with the understanding that you will never ever ask them any questions and acknowledge their help in your papers.

Alternatively you can choose less good mentors, who might actually help, but the application could fail, because you need one of the top outstanding scientists in your field. How could this be avoided? The funding agencies could require mentors to submit progress reports . This would create additional paperwork for the funding agencies and the mentors but may keep “world-renowned experts” from signing up for just-on-paper mentoring and allow applications with less famous but more involved mentors to succeed.

Protein of the week- EASTER

Since it isn’t very long until Easter I had a look at an interesting protein named EASTER.

Of course EASTER was discovered in Drosophila melanogaster. It is a maternal gene translated in the developing embryo, where it cleaves proSPAETZLE to activate SPAETZLE, which in turn establishes the dorsoventral axis of the embryo. EASTER is just the last step in a tightly regulated cascade of cleavage events, necessary for developing a perfect fly. It is translated as a protoenzyme, which needs to be activated by cleavage through the protease SNAKE. (1)

Most of the time EASTER is in a complex with a protease inhibitor that stops SNAKE, but in the ventral part of the embryo, EASTER gets activated and in turn activates SPAETZLE. SPAETZLE activates the TOLL receptor, which after a signaling cascade results in the expression of DORSAL and a concentration gradient that defines the up- and down side of the embryo.

EASTER was first described in 1984, the paper was published in September, but it is very possible that this protein was first discovered during the Easter holidays and similar to the Easter islands, just named for the time of year.

What I also found pretty interesting about EASTER is its involvement in pattern formation on butterfly wings. So Happy Easter.




Misra S, Hecht P, Maeda R, Anderson KV. Positive and negative regulation of Easter, a member of the serine protease family that controls dorsal-ventral patterning in the Drosophila embryo. Development. 1998 Apr;125(7):1261-7.

Steward R. Relocalization of the dorsal protein from the cytoplasm to the nucleus correlates with its function. Cell. 1989 Dec 22;59(6):1179-88.

Rebecca Chasan, Kathryn V. Anderson The role of easter, an apparent serine protease, in organizing the dorsal-ventral pattern of the Drosophila embryo Cell 1989, 56(3) 391–400

Anderson KV, Nüsslein-Volhard C. Information for the dorsal--ventral pattern of the Drosophila embryo is stored as maternal mRNA. Nature. 1984 Sep 20-26;311(5983):223-7.


by Juliane

BUMC has started a mentoring program for postdocs. As part of this mentoring effort, Joanne Kamens, executive director of Addgene, gave a very interesting talk about how to be a good mentee. It is a lot of work; to get the best out of a mentoring relationship the mentee has to be proactive and very organized and should know what they want. Unfortunately this is the hardest part for me, because I really don't know what I want to do when I grow-up.

If you are similar to me, here are two ways to help making this decision easier: myIDP and forced choice analysis. Both of these methods help to identify the things you don't want to do and by default the perfect career should be left. That's the theory.

Joanne also explains this on her blog, which is a great read and includes a link to her ebook about mentoring. Check it out!

the postdoc guidebook-part 6 the end

by Juliane

I am almost done with reading the postdoc guidebook. This last part is about research. Let’s see if this covers more than RIMS.

Brownie points for mentioning the training courses, some links need updating and most trainings are now online, so the only a few times a month restriction doesn’t apply for lots of trainings.

This is followed by almost two pages about RCR (responsible conduct of research); even though I agree RCR is important, this is slightly too much, since all this information is available in a more updated version from RCR.

The next page is a handy list of research offices, which I find useful and might print out.

Then a long list of research policies, this is also useful, since it is always possible for postdocs to run into compliance issues, so it is good and useful to know who to contact.

But then the postdoc guidebook goes back to thinking postdoc are students: Links to university policies, which might be of interest to postdocs, but apply mainly to students, like the Drugs and Alcohol policy.

The chapter about funding and grants is a good compilation of links that are worth exploring for anybody, who is looking for their own funding. It is organized alphabetically, which makes it harder to find grants/societies relevant for each field, plus you have to click on every link to figure out if you qualify or not. Often we don’t, e.g. the national endowment for the humanities doesn’t help science postdocs.

I like the links to networking and career advancement websites, but again they need updating.

The postdoc guidebook isn’t a bad document, but it is not perfect. If you are completely new to BU and Boston, the postdoc guidebook can help, but so does the employee guidebook and ISSO. To get to the parts that actually matter for postdocs, after they have been around for more than two months, you have to scroll until page 30 out of 34. There is a table of content, but it is not linked to the appropriate pages, so whatever you want, lots of scrolling is necessary and the page numbers and the actual number of the page in the .pdf are not identical. This makes the guidebook harder to use. There is potential for a new edition, maybe not a .pdf this time. Any volunteers to write it?

the postdoc guide book part 5

by Juliane

The next part of the postdoc guide book might be the most important part.

Finding services; this part tells us about the great services BU offers its employees. I am not being sarcastic here, BU is actually a great employer, they just like to hide a lot of their offers on obscure websites behind fifty links. Also a lot of those nice offers do not apply if you are on a fellowship or employed by BMC.

It starts rather boring informing us about the yellow pages and where the post offices are located.

But then it gets more interesting with links to human resources, child care, including back-up childcare, which sounds brilliant for snow days or school holidays.

The Staff assistance office is mentioned as well as the ombuds office, so postdocs at least have a first contact just in case something goes very wrong. These two organizations are also the first ever hint in the postdoc guide books that postdocs are actually staff and not students.

The following pages could definitely be copied from a student handbook:

There is a page about religious life, but I think that those organizations are more targeted towards students. This doesn’t mean they are not going to welcome postdocs, but it might not be what you were looking for.

There is a paragraph about students with disabilities which links to disability services, which are for students only, staff with disabilities have to make arrangements through HR.

There is information about BU gyms, which are free for students, but are with 50 dollars/month for staff not the cheapest option in Boston.

There is information about taking classes in English as a second language, which I find slightly insulting to most postdocs, but might be useful for accompanying spouses.

Following is some quite useful information for international students and scholars, how to get a Social Security Number and Mass ID. However I am not sure why we would need a Harvard ID to get a Massachusetts Identity card. I assume that this paragraph has been copied from the OPA at Harvard, which might also explain why the address of the satellite office of the Social Security Office in Somerville is provided.

The next part is going to be really good, it’s about money.

First comes a description about what BU does for employee postdocs. I am actually quite happy with the list, what exactly an employee postdoc is and I didn’t know that all those different positions for postdocs exist at BU. Unfortunately that’s it for employee postdocs, there is just a link to the rather confusing HR website to learn about benefits. International postdocs, who might be not terribly familiar with the US system of health insurances and other benefits, are pretty much left alone. I guess even some postdocs born and educated in the American system might still be confused about their rights and possibilities.

Then follows the part about the postdocs BU doesn’t like, the stipendee postdocs. There is a depressing list of all the benefits stipendee postdocs don’t get, but not much help about how to get health insurance, retirement funds or paid vacation, there isn’t even a link. I know that the OPA and the PAC is working very hard to improve the situation for stipendee postdocs, but this page in the postdoc guide book is just depressing. Maybe it serves as a warning: do not apply for fellowships, if you get one you are screwed.

Now finally taxes: lots of links to forms for both employee and stipendee postdocs, which actually include the dates on which stipendee postdocs have to file estimated taxes. Another big warning to only apply for fellowships if the department has really  nice and competent administrative support for postdocs.


tomorrow starts our first BUMC mentoring program for postdocs!

That is pretty exciting!


protein of the month- Prune



This is a prune, I believe that that’s basically a dried plum. It is very very healthy and contains lots of vitamins and fibers and all this important stuff , however most people don’t seem to like it all that much.

There are also at least two proteins, called prune, PRUNE 1 and PRUNE 2, as well as several prune-like proteins.

As many others PRUNE has first been discovered in Drosophila melanogaster.


Prune changes the eye-color of flies, when mutated. This is not very exciting, but it explains the name, the new eye color is similar to that of a prune. This is because the levels of drosopteridins, pigments that color the eyes red, are reduced.

The more exiting part here is that in combination with a second mutation, “killer of prune” (Drosophila geneticists really do give their proteins funny names), mutations in PRUNE kill Drosophila in the second or third larval state.

“Killer of PRUNE” turned out to not actually be a gene by itself, but rather a specific mutation in a gene that is boringly, but aptly called abnormal wing disc, awd.

The biochemical connection between those to proteins was only understood after in 1999 the mammalian homologue of PRUNE, hPRUNE, was discovered and its interactions with the homologue of awd, nm23-H1, was investigated. It turns out that PRUNE negatively regulates nm23-H1, which is an oncogene. Failure to inhibit nm23-H1 can lead to neuroblastoma in humans and mice.

Sturtevant AH. A Highly Specific Complementary Lethal System in Drosophila Melanogaster. Genetics. 1956 Jan;41(1):118-23.

J Biggs, N Tripoulas, E Hersperger, C Dearolf, and A Shearn Analysis of the lethal interaction between the prune and Killer of prune mutations of Drosophila. Genes & Dev. 1988. 2: 1333-1343

A Reymond, S Volorio, G Merla, M Al-Maghtheh, O Zuffardi, A Bulfone, A Ballabio and M Zollo Evidence for interaction between human PRUNE and nm23-H1 NDPKinase Oncogene 1999 18:7244-7252

the postdoc guide book part 4

By Juliane

The next part of the postdoc guide book deals with housing. This is a topic very close to my heart, because when I moved to Boston everybody in my lab was either too political correct or too uninterested to tell me that apartment hunting in Roxbury isn’t something a single woman should be doing. But I only had been to Boston for a couple of days and needed an apartment fast. Maybe the postdoc guide book could have helped me.

BU housing is for students, there are only very few apartments for staff, and postdocs are staff, no matter what people would like to think.

BU also provides help in finding off-campus housing, with a little twist: you have to have a BU password, which isn’t all that helpful, if you are new in Boston and need to find a place to sleep, before you start lab work.

However the postdoc guide book helpfully provides quite a few links to other sources. Most of them are to realtors, which is good, because there are very few apartments available in Boston without one. Some of the links are no longer available but can be found again by quick googling.

To my surprise I learned that BU has an Office of Housing Resources that helps every step of the way, including choosing your neighborhood, I looked at their website and have the suspicion that this is targeted at students. Since postdocs are not students and some of us aren’t even BU employees, I don’t think this office will help. Their links about leases and tenant rights however are very useful and since those rights vary between states might be helpful to any postdoc new to Massachusetts.

What I am really missing in the guide book is some help towards finding short term accommodation, while postdocs are getting used to Boston. I would definitely have benefit from not signing a 12 months lease after just two weeks in Boston.