Name: Daniel Leonard
Can you provide an overview of your role and responsibilities with the Young Scientist Foundation?
As a mentor within the Young Scientist Foundation, my role is to nurture the curiosity and passion that has drawn these students into the laboratory, developing a balance between the excitement of scientific endeavors with the rigor demanded of the scientific process. I work with students daily to develop their ability to critically review scientific work, develop cogent hypothesis’ based on the published literature, and design as well as carry out experiments to test their hypothesis’.
How did you advance from a researcher to a mentor?
Becoming a mentor for young scientists fascinated with the possibilities of research was initially a passive transition in my case; although this has undoubtedly evolved into an active pursuit. Students, at all stages of their education, contact Dr. Narla routinely in search of gaining experience in a laboratory. Naturally, pairing these intrigued minds with those enthralled in the day to day practices of research (graduate students) provides a unique opportunity to ignite and nurture their passion for science while enlightening the students to the scientific process. Despite this initial passive pairing, my continued pursuit of mentoring students is fueled by the satisfaction and joy consequence to the “aha” moment that occurs with each and every student. The moment when all those fancy smart-sounding science words become their native tongue and they smile ear to ear because the western they ran demonstrates a unique finding that is not written in any textbook and they are the first ones to make that particular observation.
How is the mentoring process structured?
Mentoring students is a balance between structure and dynamic practices. Structure exists in familiarizing students with the laboratory environment, the specific aims of the lab and project in which they will work, and carrying out protocols and experiments. Mentoring is dynamic in that mentors must learn to respond on an individual basis to the needs of each student including intellectual, academic, and life hurdles. For example, every student will begin by doing some homework, reading reviews and primary literature articles that outline the basics of cancer and the basics of the protein our lab focuses on (PP2A). This allows for a productive conversation with the mentor where we can gauge the students level of understanding and interpretation of the literature. We can then respond in a dynamic manner to customize the learning plan for each student based on their starting point and rate of understanding as the project and their experience evolves. From the perspective of day-to-day activities, my general practice is “see one, do one, teach one.” I spend as much time needed teaching each student a new protocol in a one-on-one manner, emphasizing the need to record everything regardless of how miniscule it may seem at the time. The next time we need to do a protocol I proactively observe the students carry out each step, hopefully utilizing their intricate notes previously emphasized. Finally, I will allow them to act as if they are teaching me the protocol for the first time once they start to feel comfortable with a particular protocol. This is an opportunity for me to become comfortable with the students’ level of understanding of the protocol as well as further refine their understanding of the purpose involved in each step.
How long have you been mentoring students?
I have had the opportunity to mentor students through the Young Scientist Foundation since the summer of 2016; although I have additionally mentored students during my undergraduate studies where my passion for research was first ignited during my undergraduate research experience as well as during my time at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The summer training program lasts 10 weeks. How many hours a week do you spend mentoring a student? What is a typical day in the lab like for you? For a student you are mentoring?
The hourly time attributed to mentoring varies from week to week as research often has a variable work load, but on average I would estimate that I spend about 35-45 hours of “in-person” mentoring per student, with about 10-20 hours of additional mentor directed planning. On average I start loosely outlining experiments a week in advance and then more definitively the night before when I have students, understanding that each new experiment and protocol will take about 2 times as long to carry out. I typically arrive around 8 a.m., purposefully before my students, in order to affirm the work load for the day and start getting things prepared such as fetching ice for experiments, thawing samples to utilize, and preparing the tools we will need for the day. I typically have students arrive between 9 and 10 a.m., where I first outline what we have done previously, what I have planned for that day, and in particular why we are doing what I have planned.
I have made a habit of focusing on the rationale for each experiment and how it fits in with the overall question of the project because I feel that this intellectual stimulation and curiosity is the most important aspect to the summer program. We spend the remainder of the day either side by side if we are going over a new protocol or in tandem if the student is comfortable with the protocol and I feel that they are ready for some independence. I then make a point to re-group before the day is over to recap what we accomplished that day and how that has set up the upcoming experiments; and once again making sure the students understand why we performed the experiments we did.
What are you focused on first and foremost when you are mentoring students?
My first priority when mentoring students is to ensure they are comfortable in the lab environment. Regardless of their level of education or previous experiences, each lab has a unique atmosphere and operates slightly differently. Even the brightest or most passionate students may be hindered or dissuaded from pursuing research if they are uncomfortable or misperceive the goals or intentions of a lab or task.
At times you can be overseeing more than one mentee, how do you ensure everyone get the deserved attention without taking essential time away from your own experiments?
Mentoring a single student is an incredible opportunity while also being a bold responsibility requiring a great deal of time and effort. Balancing the mentoring duties for more than one student simultaneously is overambitious unless done strategically. In my experience, the most efficient way to mentor multiple students is to initially stagger the students in their stage of training. For example, I prefer to have students start on different days, with at least 3 days between each new student starting. This allows me to stagger the teaching process in regards to both protocols as well as scientific rationale.
As the first student is starting to get comfortable with a particular protocol, I can use the “teach one” approach to have that student explain each step to myself as well as the next student that started. Subsequently, when I teach the second student the protocol during our one-on-one experience, it takes a bit less time, as they are familiar with some of the rationale and even some of the steps. This allows me to ensure each student gets appropriate individual time to learn new protocols and fully understand how each step works. I then have all the students partake in the morning, afternoon, and project recap sessions so they are at least aware of everything going on pertaining to the “bigger picture” project. They can work together to understand experimental rationale and even answer experimental design questions that I often pose in order to stimulate their own critical thinking. My trademark line has become, “given the results we observed today, what experiment would you do next if I was not here and why?”
A lot of parents and students know that though some research labs take students in for training, they only offer them trivial tasks. How is the atmosphere in the Young Scientist Foundation different?
My training as a physician-scientist has greatly influenced my approach to mentoring students in a research setting. Training in research-directed programs such as NIH, CCLCM, and HHMI, I have found that none of these training programs place unique emphasis on what protocols I can recall or have had experience with, but instead they all focus on my understanding of the rationale, progress and future directions of the projects I have been involved with. This emphasis has resonated with me and again has become the foundation of the mentoring skills I have practiced through the Young Scientist Foundation.
When working with students, I focus on molding the critical thinking and scientific analysis skills integral to performing sound, medically applicable research and prioritize expansion of these skills over technical protocol techniques every single day. Despite prioritizing the scientific growth of each student from an intellectual perspective, the “trivial tasks” viewed by those outside of research are also what answers and drives the intellectual questions posed and so I also allocate appropriate time and energy to ensuring students understand protocols that are considered hallmarks of scientific research. The YSF atmosphere encourages and enables scientific discussion and critical analysis skills during daily practices as well as scientific meeting opportunities to expose students to the hurdles faced by science rather than burry those students under “trivial tasks” when those discussions are being explored.
What are the things students should be aware of prior to starting the program? A lot of students can be shy to apply for the program because they are unsure they have the proper skills to be useful in a real lab setting, what would you advise them?
Intellect and technical skills are imperative to developing a successful career in research both at the graduate and postdoctoral levels but they are not pre-requisites to being an outstanding student in this setting. These attributes are without a doubt preferable and will aid in the development of the students’ research skills but the purpose of the program is to develop both the intellect and technical skills alluded previously. The only pre-requisites that a student must have from my point of view as a mentor is passion, perseverance, and professionalism. Intellect and technique can be attained to some degree with time and effort. Passion, perseverance, and professionalism are priceless. Similarly, it is important that students understand the whole bodied commitment that is accompanied by this opportunity. Research has a tendency to involve a varied schedule, including early mornings and late evenings depending on time points and various facets of different experiments. On occasion, the same obligations require weekend visits to the lab to tend to cells, or in vivo experiments. This commitment is a full-time agreement to understand the responsibilities, mindset, and lifestyle that are part of a career in research.
How do you assess a student is proficient in those skills?
Proficiency in the lab is a measure of multiple components. As most experiments are likely to fail at first and will need some troubleshooting, it is inappropriate to use this alone to equate to proficiency. Instead, I assess proficiency based on the understanding of a protocol, understanding exactly what is occurring at each step, and then being able to troubleshoot potentially what went wrong based on the results, positive or negative. In addition to technical skills, analytic and critical thinking skills are assessed on a daily basis through questions both towards and from the students.
How do you identify a situation when a student is having a problem? How do you go about helping him or her resolve it?
Students who have encountered a problem in the lab typically are not hard to identify; often times it is the blank stare or the confused darting eyes from one reagent to another or the nonchalant stroll from one end of the lab to the other, and then back, and then forward again that helps identify that there may be an opportunity to help out. Typically, in these scenarios I take a more socratic approach, trying to let the student answer their own question, helping them realize that they did know the answer all along and just needed a little boost of confidence. If the circular questioning does not help, then I am likely to succumb, not only explaining the answer but also explaining why it is the answer and in what scenarios it may be different.
How do you encourage innovative ideas?
Students underestimate their ability to generate innovative ideas that have the potential to reshape how a lab or even how a field approaches a protein or process. They are often consumed by how much they do not know in a field, viewing this only as a pitfall to their potential, forgetting that it often takes someone from outside of a field to be truly unbiased and see things insiders may overlook or miss. Do not misinterpret this to mean that it is not important to understand how the field is progressing and how it made the foundational conclusions that have set the stage for its progress. Keeping this balance of knowledge and creativity in mind, I try to challenge students at every crossroad to generate their own hypotheses and experiments to test those ideas; reminding them of the general rules that have been established in the field but encourage them to question other findings that are not as concrete.
How do you teach responsibility?
Responsibility is one of the most important traits in research, and as such, in the YSF research program. In my opinion, it is also the most difficult to teach; often times requiring students to find their own way to achieving this. Setting small attainable goals, a clear plan of action and consequences for missed goals or lack of responsibility are a few avenues that I have utilized depending on the situation. Research in particular is unique in that it does not fit within the typical restrains of a 9 to 5 work day. This calls for flexibility but also calls for discipline. Although I try to allow students to develop their independence and truly experience the research lifestyle; it is not a sustainable approach in the limited time that makes up this summer internship.
How do you give credit when credit is due?
Giving credit, particularly in a basic science lab must come in many forms, as it is very likely that more than half of the experiments attempted will fail, even after multiple attempts. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is sound science. Substantial projects (i.e. PhD work) take years to complete for that very reason. For these reasons, I make every effort to highlight the effort of the student both physically such as running westerns, preparing samples, isolating RNA, as well as intellectual, praising them when they ask second or third order questions, or suggest alternative hypotheses. These aspects are just as important as troubleshooting the technical aspect of the experiment. Additionally, it is important to recognize students during larger platform discussions such as lab meetings or conferences.
What is the key to making the best use of this training program for a student?
Questions, Questions, Questions! Many students hesitate to ask questions, assuming that questions must mean they are not sharp enough to understand something, or that the mentor may think they were not paying attention. Let me be the first to denounce this practice of brushing questions under the rug for any reason at all! As a mentor, there’s nothing better than getting questions from students. First and foremost, questions demonstrate that the student is at least interested enough to formulate a question. This will make any mentor even more excited to work with you as a student. Secondly, the only way we can gauge the students’ understanding is either by testing them with questions or hearing where they are struggling to understand something, with the latter both more telling, and more educational for the student and the mentor. Personally I assume, if a student is not asking questions, they are not interested. Even the most world renowned Nobel Laureates will have questions for a scientist at any level if they find the project interesting, so do not be shy, what is on your mind?!
Does the Young Scientist program have deliverables at the end of the training?
YSF values the integration of the students into the scientific thought process of the project they work on. The program has made it clear that they would like students to understand not only the current plans of the project but also the before and after; the rationale that led to the current progress and the future directions that may blossom from the hypothesized findings. This is evidenced through the oral presentations that the students are involved in with their mentors throughout the summer program. There is also a requirement to summarize one’s experience at the end of the internship, with the intentions of developing the reflective skills of the student to identify the strengths and weakness of the program, their own abilities, and then to summarize the project that they were part of during their time in the lab.
Can you describe your own research projects?
In short, my research project is focused on utilizing patient-derived mutations within the protein of interest in our lab (PP2A-A), found in human cancer, to understand the physiologic orchestration that occurs for proper activation (and inactivation) of this tumor suppressor. We utilize this information to identify specific proteins or pathways that can be directed in a manner that allows re-activation of the inactivated mutants, thus restoring the tumor suppressor capacity in the setting of malignancy.
What are you currently working towards? What are your long-term professional goals?
My current efforts are directed towards completing my MD/PhD degrees through the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. My long-term goal is to work within a malignant hematology/oncology directed medical practice and direct a research lab focused on identifying and developing targeted therapeutic avenues for the treatment of malignancies.
What do you do when you are not in the lab working?
Laboratory research is most definitely a full-time job, coupled with the demands of clinical responsibilities inherent in the pursuit of a combined medical degree leaves little time to continue or develop previous outside interests. I mention this lack of time on purpose as many students have come into lab and have posed their own time management hurdles, and I all too often have to remind them that the plate will stay the same size and somehow you will have to fit more and more on as your education and career continue. Developing outside interests is important for your own personal health and it will definitely help thwart burnout or work fatigue. I have been able to find time to continue weekly adventures with my fiancé to various local gems throughout Cleveland in addition to training my German Shepherd dogs in the dog sport Schutzhund.