Mentors: Stories about who helps us find our way

This week, we’re presenting two stories about the complicated relationship between mentors and mentees.

Part 1: As a brand-new professor of physiology, John Redden is eager to help students, but soon realizes it’s more complicated than he thought.

John Redden is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology and Neurobiology. His research focuses on understanding the molecular basis of cardiovascular diseases. He teaches human anatomy and physiology to pre-health majors, as well as a course in plain language science communication.  Through his teaching, he pursues his other passions – improving science literacy among the general public, and building engaging, inclusive, and equitable STEM classrooms. He’s a first generation student with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacology and toxicology, and a Ph.D. in biomedical science. He currently serves as an education mentor for the HHMI/National Academies Summer Institute on Scientific Teaching, and is the lead author of Anatomy and Physiology in Context. John is originally from Buffalo, New York, the land of chicken wings, always winter, and generally nice people. He now lives in Connecticut with three dogs, three cats, and (thankfully), a robot vacuum cleaner. You can find him on twitter @reddenjm tweeting about science, highered, scifi, and diversity issues.

Part 2: Biologist Sarah Fankhauser’s relationship with her adviser changes when she joins her lab as a grad student.

Curious and investigative by nature, Sarah Fankhauser has always been a lover of all things science. Sarah received her B.S. in biology from Ga Tech and her PhD in microbiology and immunobiology from Harvard University. Sarah is one of the founders and the board chairman of the science journal and education non-profit, Journal of Emerging Investigators. She is also an assistant professor of biology at Oxford College of Emory University where she shares her thrill and passion for science with her students. Both in her professional and personal life Sarah advocates for effective and clear communication of science with the public.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: John Redden

When I first started teaching, I didn’t know anything about being a teacher.  I mean, I had distilled some little nuggets of wisdom here and there.  Some of it sounded pretty good: dress professionally, write a good syllabus, don’t put too much text on your slides, use learning objectives.  Some of it was kind of questionable: don’t sleep with the students, crush their spirit with the first exam to establish your dominance. 

But needless to say, even when I landed my dream job as a physiology professor, I was still pretty green.  See, my training is as a cardiac biologist.  I study the molecular mechanisms of heart failure.  The classes that I took and the research that I do is on pharmacology and biochemistry in protein-protein interactions.  Nobody had ever taught me how to be a teacher.  I was definitely winging it when I was first hired. 

So I met frequently with older, more seasoned colleagues.  There was one in particular that I became close with.  He was like my wise old owl, but actually he was kind of like the honey badger because he had zero fucks to give.  See, he had tenure so he could do all sorts of things that I couldn’t even relate to, like he would swear loudly with his door open and he wouldn’t really care who was passing by in the hallway and might potentially overhear the things that he was saying.  He even had a reputation among the students for having a little bit of potty mouth and also for wearing souvenir t-shirts from places like Orlando.  

When we met, I always went to his office because, see, my dream job did not give me a dream office.  It actually didn’t give me an office at all.  I had a cubicle.  It was a shared office space and it was small and cramped.  If I tried really hard I could squeeze two people in there but really uncomfortably.  This one time I actually tried to tempt fate by inviting a third student in and the fake wall collapsed on him and knocked him over.  The poor kid just wanted to review his exam. 

But the Owl’s office was big and spacious and it had this window that led in all of this natural light, and my office had fluorescent lights that could turn my skin this really unnatural shade of gray.  So we always met in his office. 

The one day we’re sitting there and we were talking and I was telling about this student that I had who was becoming a fixture at my office hours.  The student was small in stature.  She was shy.  She was really quiet.  And she would come in to talk about material from the course initially.  But it seemed like she always want to talk about dancing.  Eventually, she would tell me about how she felt like she couldn’t live up to the expectations of her overbearing Chinese parents. 

But about halfway through the semester, she had stopped handing in all work.  I would ask her what was going on and she would make up all of these bogus excuses.  She would tell me that she forgot to do it or that she left it in her dorm or that she was feeling too tired.  Her sister told her that she was lazy.  She would make up all sorts of mystery illnesses but whenever I pressed her for documentation about them, she never gave me any. 

John Redden shares his story with us at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT in October 2018. This show was presented in partnership with UCONN’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Public Discourse Project. Photo by Nick Caito.

John Redden shares his story with us at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT in October 2018. This show was presented in partnership with UCONN’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Public Discourse Project. Photo by Nick Caito.

But she would tell me about this really awesome movie that she saw last weekend or did I want to see pictures of her dog in a Halloween costume.  I did.  But she would come in and she would stay for 45 minutes to an hour.  I started to get really confused because thinking if you're sitting here and talking to me for 45 minutes to an hour, you could have just reinvested that time to actually doing the assignments then you wouldn’t have this gradebook column that was filled with zeroes.  I was feeling more like a therapist than a professor.

So I went to visit the Owl and he weighed in.  He said, “Redden, you're too nice.”  He said, “It’s great that you're young, you have all this energy, but one day you're going to be old and you're going to be jaded, like me.  And if you don’t start setting boundaries, these little shits are going to walk all over you.  The premed students are the worst.” 

I kind of shook off his advice that day in the office.  I knew that it was good advice.  I mean, I don't know if he worried a whole lot about how he was perceived by his students, whether he cared about being loved or feared, but I remember vividly that he had this sign in his office that let all the visitors know that their lack of planning didn’t constitute an emergency for him because he also had a reputation for his subtlety. 

And I knew why I was being given the advice because I have a decidedly nonthreatening personality and I go out of my way to avoid confrontation.  So it’s not that bit of a stretch to imagine that students could potentially perceive me to be a pushover.  But the thing is I really wanted to have my students like me, and I still do.  I pride myself on being an accessible teacher.

Because I went to a big school and I had 400 students in my classes and my professors didn’t know my name.  I wasn’t an A-student.  I remember when I was a sophomore taking organic chemistry, halfway through the semester I started to panic because the words coming out of the professor’s mouth stopped making sense like weeks ago, if they ever did.  I agonized for a week over my decision to go and talk to this professor.  I didn’t know what words to use.  I didn’t know the topics, like how do I even begin to know what I don’t know about this class. 

Finally I mustered up the courage to go and see him.  When I got there, he actually interrupted me and he said basically, “I’m really busy and if you have questions you should go talk to the TA instead.” 

I never did that.  I never went to talk to the TA.  But in that moment, I did make a promise to myself that if I ever ended up on the other side of the table that I would do better than that for my students.  So professional distance be damned.  I’m just going to leave my office door open.  I want people to come and see me, to come and hang out.  I even bought this really cute little bamboo plant for my office and a Hogwarts pillow to try to make it a little bit less sterile, a little bit more inviting, potentially. 

So again, I kind of laughed off the Owl’s advice that day because, let’s be honest, premed students are kind of the worst.  They're really, really high maintenance.  But I found myself going back to it and rehearing the things that he said, especially as I started to grapple with all of the typical early-career stress that academics face because my teaching load had increased.  Now, all of a sudden, I had 700 students. 

And being accessible to 700 people sometimes means that I don't have time to eat lunch.  The little bamboo plant that I bought for my office turned from this nice, vibrant green to this disgusting shade of yellow and brown as it withered and died because, it was a surprise to me, it turns out that you actually can kill a bamboo plant.  You just can’t water it for about a month or two. 

All this was made worse by things that were happening at home.  See, on paper, my teaching contract says that I only spend seven hours a week in the classroom, which sounds awesome except that a typical workweek for me is usually 60 or more hours. 

I was arguing all of the time with my partner because we just couldn’t get our schedules aligned.  He would sometimes come home from work at 1:00 a.m. and I was getting up the next morning at 4:30.  For most of the academic year, it was dark when I was driving to work and it was dark again when I was coming home. 

As a police officer who makes double my salary with an associate’s degree, he had a really hard time understanding why I was bringing work home with me in the evening, why I was working every weekend and, most importantly, why I wasn’t getting paid any overtime. 

But the worst thing was that I was getting behind on Grey’s Anatomy.  For all I know, Derek could still be alive.  And the reason for that was that I would come home and I would sit down and twenty minutes after sitting down on the couch I'd be asleep.  But if we had drinks with dinner, if we dimmed the lights just a little bit too low, I could actually get my time down to about ten minutes. 

Our friends would call and they would try to make plans with us.  I rescheduled and made excuses so many times that, eventually, our friends became mostly his friends.  But it didn’t matter because, honestly, the thought of adding more things into my calendar just increased my stress load, gave me anxiety. 

Eventually, I lost my ability to separate personal from professional because, honestly, everything started to feel really personal.  On the first day of class, I had told the students that they should call me John.  Why not?  But now they were calling me ‘dude’ and ‘bro’, like, “Do I look like a dude, bro?” 

In our anonymous teaching evaluations that they do at the end of the semester, the students would comment on my colorful socks.  Some of them would criticize my outfits.  Some of them told me that I drank a cheap brand of seltzer in class and that they must not pay me enough for me to afford a more premium brand.  I mean, they were right but ouch, right? 

One student I caught cheating on an exam blatantly so I pulled him aside after class and we talked about it face to face.  I gave him an out but he didn’t take it.  Instead, he looked me right in the eye and basically lied to my face.  And I started to hear the Owl’s advice coming back in my head.  I felt really betrayed.  This is what everybody told me was going to happen. 

I started to think that maybe I should do a better job of setting boundaries.  I mean, with everything that’s going on at home, do I really have time to have students just casually dropping by to talk about their theories for the ending of Game of Thrones?  I don't know.  When I took this job I was excited but it came with great sacrifice.  I had to move away from my family, my friends, from the people that I loved in order to be here and this was not the thing that I signed up for. 

So as I was grappling with all of this, my high-maintenance student started coming in pretty much every day, usually unannounced emails coming in between classes, more missed assignments, more excuses.  I started to feel really, really resentful because here was this one student and I was giving her so much of my time, time that I didn’t have but time that could have gone to my partner, to my friends, to my family or even to the other 700 students in the class.  And she wasn’t even handing in assignments.  She didn’t give a shit about my class. 

I started to get angry and resentful.  Eventually, I started avoiding her.  She would come and she would knock on the door and sometimes I would pretend like I wasn’t there, because the best thing about having a shared office space is that nobody can really tell who’s inside at any given point, if there is a good thing about it. 

My lightning-fast email response time dropped down from about thirty minutes to a day, sometimes two days and sometimes I didn’t respond at all because I was feeling overwhelmed. 

Eventually she caught up with me at the end of a really hectic week.  It was Friday.  I had dinner plans with my friends and they started in ten minutes.  The only problem was that they were an hour away and I was on campus. 

I was rushing out and I realized that I forgot my car keys so I went back into my office to grab my keys, but I left the door open.  When I turned around to leave again, the student was standing there.  She was in the doorway.  Fuck. 

John Redden shares his story with us at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT in October 2018. This show was presented in partnership with UCONN’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Public Discourse Project. Photo by Nick Caito.

John Redden shares his story with us at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT in October 2018. This show was presented in partnership with UCONN’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Public Discourse Project. Photo by Nick Caito.

She forced her way into my tiny, cramped, little cubicle and she had this backpack on that was probably about the same size as she was.  The two of us were sitting in this really cramped, uncomfortable space about three feet apart from each other, just kind of staring at each other. 

In my pocket, my cell phone is vibrating with text messages from all of the friends that I have left basically saying, “Where are you?”  “Should we wait for you?”  “Are you not coming again this time?” 

They say that when you're really angry, you're supposed to count to five before you say anything so that you don’t accidentally say something that you would regret later, so in my head I’m doing a slow fifteen  I’m thinking about this awkward, uncomfortable confrontational conversation that me and this student have to have right now at 5:00 on a Friday. 

“I don't know care about your dog.  I don’t care about the TV shows.  The thing that matters to me is that you haven't done anything this semester and you don’t have any excuses for it.  You're going to fail.  This is the reckoning.” 

The student interrupted this thought by unzipping her backpack.  She took out a sheet of paper and she went on to tell me that that piece of paper was going to be her suicide note but she had decided to come and see me instead. 

In that moment, I was so glad that my office door just happened to be open.  And I really can’t think about the alternate version where I actually made it to dinner with my friends.  That student taught me a lot about teaching, about what it really means to be a teacher, and why all these sacrifices are worth it.  Next year, she's starting graduate school. 

Thank you.


Part 2: Sarah Fankhauser

“I can finally stop pretending to be nice to you.”  That was the response of my research adviser when I told her I had officially joined her lab as a first year graduate student at Harvard University.  I thought she was joking.  She wasn’t. 

The next day I came into the lab and I found that my spot in the lab had been moved to the bench right across from the glass doors, presumably so she can monitor me coming and going.  I asked her about this.  She simply said, “I've decided to reorganize the lab.”  But my space was the only one that was ‘reorganized’. 

I tried to convince myself this is a good thing.  I’m going to get personalized attention from a Harvard professor.  What more could I possibly ask for? 

The change didn’t happen immediately but slowly, day by day.  That personalized attention that I thought I wanted emerged as someone monitoring my every movement in and out of the lab.  I went into lab late one morning arriving close to 7:30.  I found my adviser with her blue nitrile gloves on going through my biohazard trash trying to decipher what I had done the day before. 

“Why did you throw these plates away?  What did you do wrong?”  She demanded to know.  “And why did you use these P10 pipette tips and not these P20s?” 

I stood there stunned.  I didn’t know how to answer.  “I don't know.  That’s what I used.  They do the exact same thing.  It doesn’t matter.” 

As my labmates walked in, they just looked at the ground pretending not to hear my adviser yell at me. 

“What was going through your head to make you think this,” she asked. 

Those words clung to me.  What was going through my head?  I didn’t know but whatever it was it was somehow inadequate. 

I walked into my adviser’s office late one afternoon and in a shaky voice I asked, “In June can I have a week off to attend a wedding?  My wedding?” 

“No.  You're in my lab, the science comes first.” 

Instantly, tears were in my eyes and I was choking back, trying to find my words to negotiate.  “Please, I'll work the nights, the weekends.  I won’t let the experiments fall behind.  Just give me four days.” 

“Whatever,” she said. 

Weekly check-ins were the worst.  In the privacy of her office, she could dole out whatever verbal abuse she wanted with no witnesses to provide a comforting shoulder after.  I sat down her office and I explained a week’s worth of data.  She leaned far back in her chair rubbing her stomach. 

Sarah Fankhauser shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Highline Inn Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in October 2018. Photo by Rob Felt.

Sarah Fankhauser shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Highline Inn Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in October 2018. Photo by Rob Felt.

“You're an idiot,” she said.  Just a hint of laughter so I couldn’t quite interpret her intentions.  “You've done something wrong.  This doesn’t make sense.” 

I had just explained to her my results that didn’t support her hypothesis. 

“You don’t know what you're doing.  I'll follow up.” 

Two days later, she showed me her data with the exact opposite results of mine.  “See, you're an idiot.” 

“Explain the results to me.  I just want to learn, please.” 

“Shut up.  You're not working on this experiment anymore.” 

A new academic year had started, a new round of departmental seminars, informal gatherings, journal clubs.  At the first departmental seminar, the speaker just finished and asked for questions.  I raised my hand interested in knowing about his methodology and why he had to use a particular technique, and he called on me. 

Instantly, my face turned red.  I could feel the flush of embarrassment rising from my chest upwards.  “This is such a stupid question.  I’m such an idiot.  I don't want others to know how stupid I am.” 

I tried to phrase a coherent question and, instead, I stumbled over the word ‘I’, which isn’t even a word.  It’s one letter and I couldn’t say it. 

I tried to convince myself that I was just nervous.  Anyone would be nervous in front of all of these professors, but what I would describe as just stumbling over my words had become a consistent stutter. 

In the journal club of my peers, my friends, people I started graduate school with, I would just sit in the corner, try my best not to talk. 

“What has happened to me?  I've lost all confidence.  I can’t even speak clearly.”

I had other physical symptoms.  I had shortness of breath and panic attacks and horrible skin issues.  Finally, I went to the doctor. 

“Nothing is wrong with you,” I was told. 

More time passed.  Finally, one day, I told my adviser, “I’m going to lunch.”  Instead, I walked the two miles to Student Health Services for my first appointment with a therapist. 

I was in the waiting room filling out the entry questionnaire and I came across this question.  “How many times a week do you think about hurting yourself?” 

I thought this was such a bizarre question.  “Hurt myself?  Why would I do that?  I already feel enough pain and stress, why would I want more?  If this question is on here then there are people a lot way worse off than I am. 

Maybe I have made a mistake.  Maybe I don't belong here.”  So I contemplated leaving.  My name was called. 

I walked back to a small office and sat down from across the therapist. 

“Why are you here,” he asked. 

I didn’t know where to start so I just described my day, which is the same every day.  At the end he said, “It sounds like you're in an abusive relationship.” 

I had never thought about it that way.  I have no bruises, no physical scars.  I’m not sure I believe him but I made an appointment to see him the following week. 

Every week in therapy was the same.  I would describe my week, I'd complain about my adviser and he would listen.  At the end, he would summarize exactly what I had said back to me.  Somehow hearing my words said back to me made me realize what I had allowed to happen. 

He asked me to record my thoughts and my experiences in a journal.  At one point I wrote, “I want to quit.  I want to leave the lab, but I don't know how.” 

I had spent three years working on this project in this lab.  If I leave, I'll have nothing to show for it, no publications, no papers, no degree, no letters of recommendation.  I would be killing my academic future.  How am I going to tell my family, my friends, my husband that I had failed?  I couldn’t do it. 

A friend of mine was in a lab in the same department and he spoke so highly of his adviser.  I decided to go talk to him.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted out of the conversation but I sat down with Michael, the research adviser, and explained my situation. 

“I think I want out of the lab,” I told him, “but I don't know what to do next.  Can I join another lab?  Is that a thing?  That would be starting my PhD over from scratch.  Is it even worth it?” 

He listened quietly and then he said, “When can you start?” 

“Now.  Right now.”  In an instant, I had a future again, a way out.  The sense of relief was just amazing. 

I went home that afternoon and meticulously started planning my exit strategy.  That Monday I went into my adviser’s office and I told her, “I’m quitting.” 

Sarah Fankhauser shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Highline Inn Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in October 2018. Photo by Rob Felt.

Sarah Fankhauser shares her story on the Story Collider stage at Highline Inn Ballroom in Atlanta, GA in October 2018. Photo by Rob Felt.

“Why,” she asked. 

“I’m unhappy,” I told her. 

Again, she asked, “Why?” 

I was stunned.  She couldn’t see her own behavior.  She couldn’t see what she was doing. 

“It’s you,” I said.  “It’s the way you treat me, it’s the way you treat us.  Your words are cruel and demoralizing.  And stop going through my biohazard trash.” 

I could have kept going but I stopped, shook that I had even said those words out loud, terrified of what her response might be. 

She was quiet for several minutes and then she apologized.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I'll change.  Every time I’m mean to you, just call me out on it and I will give you chocolate.  Just stay in the lab, please.  I'll change.” 

And I believed her.  That afternoon I called Michael.  I apologized for wasting his time but I said, “My adviser is changing.  I owe it to her to stick it out.” 

Three months passed.  Three months and nothing changed.  Three more months of stuttering, three more months of therapy, three more months of me asking myself why am I letting this person beat down the best parts of me.  I had finally learned my lesson again. 

This time I went to my adviser’s office late on a Friday afternoon.  I had my boxes packed ready to be picked up downstairs.  I kept it short.  “I’m leaving the lab.” 

The next Monday I joined Michael’s lab.  I met with him that morning and I expected him to tell me what questions to ask and what experiments to perform.  Instead, he simply asked me, “What are you interested in?” 

I had never been asked that before.  I’m not a scientist.  I just do experiments as I’m told. 

I was excited.  For the next three years I explored my questions, I designed my own experiments and I endured my own many failures, but I always found a path forward. 

On September 6, 2013, I stood up in front of my family, my peers, and professionals in my field and defended my thesis.  Halfway through my talk I realized I've done it.  I've succeeded.  I’m about to get my PhD. 

For a moment, I was caught in these thoughts and lost my place in my talk.  I started to stumble over my next few words.  “Oh, God.  This cannot be happening again.  Not now.”  And it didn’t. 

I paused.  I reminded myself I’m the expert.  I’m the scientist.  No one is going to make me feel stupid today. 

Thank you.