Name: Rita Avelar
Can you provide an overview of your role and responsibilities with the Young Scientist Foundation?
My role in Dr. Narla’s lab and in collaboration with the Young Scientist Foundation is to guide the students and provide them with the right tools, knowledge and experience that are critical for success in a scientific career. As a mentor, it is my responsibility to get to know each and every one of my students individually, so that I can better adapt to their needs and learning styles.
What was the defining moment that sparked your own interest in science and research?
I have always been deeply interested in science; ever since my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer when I was 13 years old, I knew that I was meant to pursue my career in cancer research. When I was an undergraduate student, I spent my summer working in biomaterials and biomedical sciences lab; being exposed to the laboratory at a young age amplified my passion and interest for research.
When you became a mentor, how did you change the way you did your job?
It is extremely important when we are teaching someone, that we understand their strengths and weaknesses so we can better mentor them at their own pace. Becoming a mentor involves a tremendous amount of dedication, time and persistence to make sure the students understand the experiments and can explain complex scientific concepts in their own words. In order to achieve that level of clarity and understanding, we may explain the same concept many times in different ways, do experiments at a slower pace, or perform the same steps of an experiment as many times as necessary for a student to be comfortable and confident. As an old Chinese saying goes, “it is essential that we do not give them the fish, but give them the fish rod and teach them how to fish.”
How is the program’s mentoring process designed?
The program is designed to allow the young scientists to be directly involved with bench work, scientific thinking and processing so they can develop specific skills and become more familiar with techniques in the various areas of biomedical research. A mentor is initially assigned, so students can have someone more experienced to learn from and rely on. In addition, high school students work on a specific project to understand and learn to scientifically justify experiments and results.
How long have you been mentoring students?
It has been two years since I mentored my first student.
The summer training program lasts 10 weeks. How many hours a week do you spend mentoring a student?
This is very dependent on the student. Some students have had previous laboratory experiences or have been coming to our lab for several consecutive years, they are more independent and need less guidance. The new students may need us to be present at all times, even afterhours. I feel like I have to always be there for my students, serving as their mentor 100% of the time they need me.
What is a typical day in the lab like for you? For a student you are mentoring?
I tend to start my day by asking my students if there are any questions related to what we accomplished on the previous day. Then, we go over the experiments that we have planned for that day and we usually discuss how comfortable and independent the students feel with each particular experiment. The way I personally like to have my students build confidence is by having them shadow me the first time a protocol is being taught and asking them to write down every step in their own words. The next time we do the experiment, we go over their notes together before we start, but this time the goal is to have the students execute the experiment themselves with me following closely each and every step they take. In the end, the students are capable of doing experiments on their own and they learn to analyze and interpret the data they obtained through their own work.
What are the most satisfying and challenging parts of your work with students?
The most satisfying part of my work with my mentees is to watch them become independent and able to come up with their own scientific questions that have not been posed or answered yet. It is gratifying to see the students grow, learn and care so for science passionately. The most challenging part is to show my students that with greater risks comes great responsibility. Students should never feel discouraged by failure or mistakes: the harsher the journey, the more rewarding the outcome, and hurdles can never impede you from reaching your goal.
How does it feel to be responsible for the professional growth of multiple students in the lab?
I think the most appropriate word to describe it is rewarding. It is indeed a fulfilling experience to have someone look up to you as a role model. As mentors, our job is to share our experiences and guide our students to gather the necessary tools for success. If this is achieved, there is nothing more rewarding than knowing we did our job properly. Moreover, mentoring is also a learning process for me. As my students evolve and seek answers to new questions, I have to constantly challenge myself to become a better guide for them.
What are the things you wish the students were aware of prior to starting the program?
I wish students could understand that most of the time it is more important to think about the big picture and even though science is not always what we expect, the learning experience is priceless. The best way to learn science it by trying new things and making your own mistakes. Sometimes our best findings emerge through serendipity.
What are some of the key skills you teach in the lab?
The first and most important thing that I teach my students is to focus on the scientific question. What is the question they are trying to answer and how will they approach it? The purpose of teaching different protocols is to allow the students to use different techniques and tools to consistently prove the same result. The next most important thing is learning how to communicate a thought or result. If a scientist’s idea is brilliant, yet he or she cannot express it scientifically or justify its significance, it will be difficult to appreciate or even understand.
How do you keep track of the students’ progress?
It is extremely important to encourage my students to ask all kinds of questions related to the science we do in the lab, even the ones we have been over more than once. For me the students’ progress is measured by their independence and critical thinking as it gets shaped over time. I can tell that by the end of the summer training, my students can clearly structure their own ideas, while their questions become more complex and advanced.
How do you encourage a student that is experiencing difficulties?
Science can be hard for everyone, even for those who have been doing for a long time. When you do not know the answer to a question, it means you are challenging yourself to reach beyond your knowledge, and this is how you learn and evolve as a scientist. I always discourage my student from staying in the comfort zone. If they need to, we can repeat a protocol several times. However, I always tell my students that the fact they made a mistake once should not inhibit their will to try the experiment again and perfect it. Only those who work hard and keep trying make mistakes.
How do you ensure the information you teach turns into applicable knowledge for students?
Scientific techniques taught in a laboratory are very general and broad, and everyone can learn them. However, it is knowing how and when to apply them that is important. The key is to learn how to think critically and once this skillset is acquired, you can apply it to any scientific field.
How do you encourage novel ideas?
Ideas arise when you cannot find the answer you are looking for. This way, I tend to encourage my students to read papers related to the research we do. At Dr. Narla’s lab, we also encourage the students to participate in our lab meetings where we exchange ideas and suggestions for all the different projects ongoing in the lab. By learning how other people think and come up with their research hypotheses and scientific approaches, the students are encouraged to look at the bigger picture, which also allows them to think beyond the project they have been focusing on.
How do you give credit when credit is due?
The best kind of science is done when a lot of people collaborate together and share different ideas to leverage the knowledge. The whole is more important than the parts and promoting the inclusion of the students is extremely important to keep them motivated. The projects I have been working on have a wide number of people involved and any contribution should be acknowledged. My students present at lab meetings all the data they helped generate and Dr. Narla meets with them to discuss their contributions to the work that has been done.
Why do you think so many students are drawn to the YSF program?
Due to lack of opportunities at their own schools, students more often than not do not get to have laboratory experience until they join a graduate course. Making a career decision can be very challenging, especially if you have not yet been able to put in practice what you learnt in theory. The Young Scientist Foundation does not only allow students to be work with modern scientists, but it also allows them to do research and perform experiments with their own hands, learning from their own experiences and mistakes. If we do not teach the next generation to be better than us, who is going to replace us in the future?
What is the best piece of advice you received in your life that you keep going back to?
My parents always tell me that, as Winston Churchill used to say, “you should always look at a difficulty as a new opportunity.” In life, challenges will keep coming and it is our job to not feel intimidated by them. If we do only the things that are easy for us, we will never grow and evolve as professionals. My parents always encourage me when I come across something very hard; they say “no matter how tall the mountain, it cannot block the sun.”
What are you professional aspirations? Where would you like to see your career go?
I would like to join the PhD program at Case Western Reserve University and continue my research in Dr. Narla’s lab. Working in cancer research in Dr. Narla’s lab has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my professional life, and the belief that my research and eventual discoveries can help those who suffer from cancer is what keeps me motivated and inspired every day.