Mentorship Matters to Scientists

(Photos by Jason Torres)
By Teresa Carr
Einstein scientists and their trainees find that collaboration benefits both sides of the equation

Maria Alejandra Feliz Norberto is a big believer in mentors. In fact, the third-year Einstein graduate student has two of them. Moreover, she herself has become a mentor, working with four high school students and with two students from her alma mater, Lehman College.

“Being a mentor is all about opening doors for students—giving your mentees a glimpse of what’s possible,” Ms. Feliz Norberto says. “It also means providing support, so the mentee knows that someone is in their corner to help. That’s crucial.”

Mentorship is essential for developing the next generation of scientific researchers. Mentees learn professionalism, get hands-on training, are exposed to different specialties, and become more effective in the research arena. The relationship benefits the mentors too: Studies show that mentors experience increased scientific productivity and enjoy more career success than scientists who don’t mentor. 

Here, we highlight five groups of Einstein mentors and their mentees and explain how the relationships have improved their scientific investigations.

Ph.D. Partnership:

Teresa Bowman, Sofia de Oliveira, and Maria Alejandra Feliz Norberto

When it came time to choose a mentor for her graduate research, Ms. Feliz Norberto couldn’t decide. After arriving at Einstein, she had enjoyed her postbaccalaureate research experience in the lab of Teresa Bowman, Ph.D., associate professor of developmental and molecular biology, of oncology, and of medicine at Einstein and a member of the Ruth L. and David S. Gottesman Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center. 

And during her rotation period while she was in the first year of grad school, she’d had a great research experience in the lab of Sofia de Oliveira, Ph.D., assistant professor of developmental and molecular biology and of medicine at Einstein and chair of the Montefiore Einstein Cancer Center women’s initiative network. “I wanted both on my team,” she says.

Ph.D. student Maria Alejandra Feliz Norberto, right, discusses zebrafish with mentors Sofia de Oliveira, Ph.D., left, and Teresa Bowman, Ph.D.

She ended up asking if she could have each of them as mentors, and the two scientists agreed. “We wanted to work with her,” says Dr. Bowman. “So we created a research project for Maria Alejandra that would capture both of our areas of interest.”

It helped that both mentors use zebrafish as model organisms to study blood cells. Dr. de Oliveira studies neutrophils, the white blood cells that fight infections, heal injuries, and combat cancer by infiltrating the tumor microenvironment. And Dr. Bowman focuses on mutations in hematopoietic (blood-forming) stem cells (HSCs) that lead to myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), the blood disorders in which bone marrow produces defective blood cells that crowd out normal adult blood cells. About one-third of MDS cases evolve into acute myeloid leukemia, an often-deadly blood cancer.

It turns out that some MDS patients also have too few neutrophils, leaving them susceptible to infection. “That allowed for a good collaboration involving both mentors,” says Ms. Feliz Norberto. For her project, the three of them decided, Ms. Feliz Norberto would investigate interactions between HSCs and neutrophils that eventually lead to MDS.

Having two mentors who are successful female scientists tells me that I can help other students see themselves in this position one day.
— Ph.D. Student Maria Alejandra Feliz Norberto

The arrangement has benefited Ms. Feliz Norberto as well as her mentors. “I am learning a lot about neutrophils and thinking about the feedback they provide to the blood system and how that feedback winds up regulating HSCs,” Dr. Bowman reports. Dr. de Oliveira says she is “learning how HSCs—the progenitors of the blood system—affect what we see later in neutrophils.”

Ms. Feliz Norberto dreams of having her own lab someday. “As a member of an underrepresented minority, I sometimes have trouble seeing myself in these big positions,” she says. “But having two mentors who are successful female scientists tells me that I can make this happen and that I can help other students see themselves in this position one day.”

Postdoc Collaboration:

Nicholas Sibinga and Gustavo Oliveira de Paula

In 2018, Gustavo Oliveira de Paula, Ph.D., traveled from his native Brazil to accept a postdoctoral position in the lab of Nicholas Sibinga, M.D., professor of medicine and of developmental and molecular biology at Einstein. The two agreed to give the arrangement a year. Now, nearly five years later, Dr. Oliveira de Paula is still here.

The good fit was not immediately apparent. Dr. Sibinga studies the biological mechanisms of cardiovascular disease. For his Ph.D. research, Dr. Oliveira de Paula had focused on pharmacology. But to develop effective drugs, he realized, he could benefit from a mentor with expertise regarding the biological processes that lead to disease.

People think that the flow of information goes from senior to junior colleagues, but it often goes the other way around.
 — Dr. Nicholas Sibinga

Dr. Sibinga viewed the relationship as a win-win. “Gustavo could learn some new science,” he realized, “and the lab would benefit from his pharmacology expertise. People typically think that the flow of information goes from senior to junior colleagues, but it often goes the other way around.”

Indeed, the two are combining their knowledge domains to reach the same goal. “We’re dedicated to understanding the cellular processes in heart disease better, with an eye to identifying molecules to target with drug therapies,” says Dr. Sibinga, who is also a cardiologist at Montefiore.

Nicholas Sibinga, M.D., left, and Gustavo Oliveira de Paula, Ph.D., review the cellular changes in heart disease.

Dr. Oliveira de Paula uses mouse models to study the cellular changes affecting blood vessels as they become clogged with plaque. He’s also exploring how angioplasty and stenting—cardiac procedures for opening blocked arteries—affect cellular processes. For example, he notes that one-fourth of patients who undergo angioplasty plus stenting end up with scar tissue around the stent, which narrows the artery again. “Ultimately, we’d like to find new ways to treat vascular obstruction, possibly without invasive procedures,” he says.

Good mentor-mentee relationships can last a lifetime. Dr. Oliveira de Paula intends to apply for grants in both the United States and Brazil to fund his own independent research. “But I feel like wherever I go,” he says, “I’m going to maintain this collaboration with Nick.”

M.D./Ph.D. Mentorship:

Julie Secombe and Hayden Hatch

Early in his M.D./Ph.D. training, eighth-year Einstein student Hayden Hatch realized he wanted to work in the lab of Julie Secombe, Ph.D. She was studying KDM5 proteins that regulate the expression of genes involved in intellectual disability and certain cancers. The hitch was that Mr. Hatch, a neuroscience student, needed a neuroscience faculty member as a mentor—but Dr. Secombe was at the time an associate professor of genetics.

“I was over the moon at the prospect of having someone with a neuroscience background come to my lab,” Dr. Secombe says. “So I decided to apply to join the neuroscience department, even though I had to meet with every single tenured faculty member over there,” she says with a laugh. The secondary appointment in neuroscience, she says, “turned out to be a great thing for me personally.” She is now a professor of genetics and in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience.

Julie encourages me to put myself out there. The recognition is all due to her encouragement and belief in my potential.
 — M.D./Ph.D. Student Hayden Hatch

Mr. Hatch had never taken a genetics class but had spent two years as a research technician at New York University Medical Center, studying the fruit-fly brain to better understand the neuronal mechanisms underlying complex behaviors. And Dr. Secombe, who also worked with fruit flies, needed someone to investigate how KDM5 proteins regulate neurodevelopment within the fruit-fly brain. “That would help us better understand how mutations in these genes contribute to human disease,” she says. 

The two clicked right from the start. “Did we talk about cats at our first meeting?” asks Dr. Secombe. “Probably,” answers Mr. Hatch. “We bonded over our love of cats.”

For his thesis research, Mr. Hatch conducted experiments that showed that KDM5 proteins help regulate the development and function of neurons. “We saw similar behavioral deficits, such as impairments in learning and memory, in fruit flies that had the same genetic variants as those that cause intellectual disability in humans,” he notes.

M.D./Ph.D. student Hayden Hatch examines a vial containing fruit flies in the lab of Julie Secombe, Ph.D.

His research led to multiple publications and has garnered numerous accolades, including Einstein’s Julius Marmur Award, Einstein’s Junior Investigator Neuroscience Research Award, and the Genetics Society of America’s DeLill Nasser Award for Professional Development in Genetics. “Julie encourages me to put myself out there,” says Mr. Hatch. “The recognition is all due to her encouragement and belief in my potential.”

Both say that a meaningful aspect of their collaboration was connecting with families of people with intellectual disabilities linked to mutations in KDM5 genes. Eleven of these families traveled from around the world to attend Einstein’s Rare Disease Day in 2020, which focused on KDM5. In 2021, in the American Journal of Medical Genetics, the two researchers published results of a survey of caregivers of 37 children with the rare disorder—the largest study group reported to date.

Because of his interest in intellectual disability, autism, and other neurodevelopmental disorders, Mr. Hatch plans to apply for a residency in pediatric neurology this year. He would like to treat patients and to become a principal investigator in his own lab, where he can also mentor students. 

“Mentoring gives you an amazing opportunity to instill a great scientific mindset in the next generation,” Dr. Secombe says. “You get to see students go out in the world and succeed, knowing you’ve helped them develop what they take with them.”

Medical Student Guidance:

Roy Chuck and Jessinta Oseni

It’s the nature of science that “many great ideas either totally bomb or at least don’t turn out as expected,” says Roy Chuck, M.D., Ph.D. He was lamenting that, all too often, medical students who add a full year of research to their training have little to show for their efforts—which could have been the case for one of his mentees, fourth-year student Jessinta Oseni. 

But after several of her initial research projects with Dr. Chuck were delayed or failed to work out, the pair decided to address an important clinical question: Can corneas from young donors who’ve died from head trauma be safely donated for transplant?

Fourth-year medical student Jessinta Oseni goes over her corneal-donor research project with her mentor, Roy Chuck, M.D., Ph.D.

Working with Saving Sight, one of the nation’s largest eye banks, Ms. Oseni examined 287 corneas that had been removed from people younger than 50 who had died from head injuries. Studying data on and images of those corneas, she focused on the endothelial layer—the cell layer that lines the bottom of the cornea and that’s responsible for keeping the cornea compact and clear, allowing for sharp vision in organ recipients. 

The transplant community had long assumed that head trauma—from a gunshot wound or car accident, for example—would so significantly damage the corneal endothelium that those corneas would be unusable for transplant surgery. However, Ms. Oseni’s careful study found that corneas from head-trauma victims were not significantly different from corneas removed from other people. She presented the results of her study at two major conferences, and they were published in the journal Cornea in November 2022.

I learned that it’s important to know when to ask for assistance and that it takes a team to successfully complete a project.
 — Medical Student Jessinta Oseni

Dr. Chuck, who is a professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences, the Paul Henkind Chair in Ophthalmology, and a professor of genetics at Einstein and the chair of ophthalmology at Montefiore, hails the importance of Ms. Oseni’s findings. “If we can continue to figure out which factors make a cornea transplantable or not transplantable using evidence-based methods, we’re going to affect the world as we expand our scarce donor-organ pools,” he says.

Ms. Oseni says she is grateful that Dr. Chuck gave her the freedom to run her study but was always there for guidance. “As a student researcher, you want to figure everything out yourself,” Ms. Oseni says. “I learned that it’s important to know when to ask for assistance and that it takes a team to successfully complete a project.” 

Dr. Chuck notes that becoming a good mentor can take time. “There are some faculty members who are naturals as mentors, and for others there’s a learning curve,” he says. “I don’t know that I was great at mentoring when I first began taking on students 25 years ago, but I think I’m getting better at it.”

Alumni Connection

Hasan Bazari and Melissa Iammatteo

Hasan Bazari, M.D. ‘83, and his mentee, Melissa Iammatteo, M.D. ‘12.

Last summer, Melissa Iammatteo, M.D. ’12, FAAAAI, faced a dilemma: Should she stay in academic medicine or accept a job offer from a pharmaceutical company to oversee the first-in-humans trial of a vaccine for peanut allergies? Taking the job would cut her off from what she loved about medicine—the personal interactions with patients. But she was excited by the possibility of affecting people’s lives on a global scale. 

To help her decide, she called on the wisdom of one of her mentors, Hasan Bazari, M.D. ’83, at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston. The two Einstein alumni had first met during Dr. Iammatteo’s residency at Harvard Medical School and MGH. She’d been considering a switch from emergency medicine to internal medicine and was nervous about meeting Dr. Bazari, who was the director of MGH’s internal medicine program at that time.

The process of helping young people see the world is a privilege.
 — Dr. Hasan Bazari

“But he was so warm and welcoming,” she says, “and we had an instant connection through Einstein.” Dr. Bazari became her rock—easing her transition to internal medicine, connecting her with other mentors when she went on to specialize in allergy and immunology, and even helping her husband, a lawyer, find a job in Boston.

Dr. Bazari says that more than 1,000 trainees passed through the MGH internal medicine program while he was in charge. But Dr. Iammatteo stood out, he says: “You didn’t have to tell her what to do—just ask the right questions.” 

When it came to discussing her job dilemma, Dr. Iammatteo appreciated how Dr. Bazari helped guide her to the decision she realized was in her heart all along. “He’s like [the Star Wars character] Yoda,” she says. “He’s so brilliant and yet so humble.” 

With his support, she says, she felt confident about taking her career in a new direction and accepted the position as a clinical development physician at Allergy Therapeutics.

Today, Dr. Bazari teaches, volunteers for the Einstein Alumni Association’s board of governors, and maintains relationships with scores of mentees. “The process of helping young people see the world is a privilege,” he says. “You get to watch someone’s true purpose unfold before your eyes. It’s magical.”

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