Pediatric cardiac surgeon and researcher Meena Nathan, MD, MPH, is passionate about mentoring. For five years, Nathan, an assistant professor of surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH), has taken on a mentorship role in our Visiting Research Internship Program (VRIP). Throughout this process, she’s learned some valuable lessons on how to be a good mentor – and mentee.
Nathan’s primary work at BCH is to ensure that kids having heart surgery get the best care possible. So when her quality improvement team noticed an uptick in a complication, they wanted to investigate further by delving into the BCH database deeper than any AI algorithm can yet go. It was the perfect learning project for a young scientist interested in her field because it required not only data collection and evaluation, but also understanding the cardiac anatomy, the mechanics of this particular complication, and how to reduce its incidence. Enter Mischael Saint-Sume, a rising second-year medical student at Morehouse School of Medicine, who tackled the project this past summer as part of Nathan’s clinical research team.
We caught up with Nathan just after the VRIP closing ceremony in July to talk about diversity in healthcare and why mentoring matters.
Harvard Catalyst offers VRIP to foster a new generation of clinical and translational researchers from underrepresented communities. In your view, why does diversity in healthcare matter?
If you look at our population, it is pretty diverse, but healthcare providers tend to be white/Caucasian, although this is slowly changing. To understand your patient, you need to know what their background is and what their makeup is. Having a diverse population of caregivers improves healthcare for underrepresented populations. It’s very hard for those who are not of similar race or ethnicity to understand the thought process or cultural nuances of other races and ethnicities. You can try your best, but unless you’re born into the culture, it’s different, and it’s difficult.
You have been a VRIP mentor for five years. Why do you keep coming back?
I personally think that mentoring is very important. I was mentored as a student, as a resident, and as junior faculty, so part of it is giving back. You need to help the next generations the same way you were helped when you were starting out.
“Having a diverse population of caregivers improves healthcare for underrepresented populations. It’s very hard for those who are not of similar race or ethnicity to understand the thought process or cultural nuances of other races and ethnicities.”
The most rewarding part is being able to help young students realize what they want to do. To teach them something they haven’t learned that they can use in the future, to help open opportunities for them, and maybe even include them on a publication that will help improve their CV. If people reach out to me asking for advice, I’m more than happy to chat with them on Zoom for 10 or 15 minutes to help them with their questions. All the mentees that I have mentored through VRIP have kept in touch with me. Even if their projects are just small parts of major projects, I try to give them credit wherever I can. Some projects are ongoing, and manuscripts have not yet been written, but whenever the manuscript gets finalized, I will definitely acknowledge the work that they have done.
Do you think that mentorship is even more important in people from underrepresented groups who are interested in a career in clinical and translational research?
Definitely. I think mentorship helps open pathways that would otherwise not be available to them. Mischael has made contact with so many folks here. He made sure he visited the operating room so that he could establish a mentoring relationship with other surgeons and have other mentors he can reach out to in addition to me. It’s important not to limit yourself to one or two mentors. Reach out to as many as you can because each has a different perspective and different advice that can help you along in your career. The wider your pool of mentors, the wider your reach to opportunities.
Young medical students need to realize they shouldn’t feel shy and say, “Oh, I don’t want to bother them.” There’s no harm in asking. If they don’t get back to you, then you know that they don’t have either the time or interest. You can try one more time and if that fails, then you move on to the next person. If you don’t ask they won’t know that you are seeking advice.
“The wider your pool of mentors, the wider your reach to opportunities.”
What advice would you offer to someone considering taking on a formal mentoring role through a structured format like VRIP?
It’s important not only to advise mentees on their career, but also to help them with public recognition in the form of publications and presentations. I send out emails to mentees with any opportunities for other mentoring opportunities and relevant career-development information.
It is a lot of work. You spend a lot of time training them because you have to make sure that they know what they’re doing, that the data they’re collecting is accurate and collected the way that you want it collected. You always have to do a few spot checks here and there. I have a system well developed that moves things along, including an excellent research assistant, Katie Kohlsaat, who helps train summer interns and residents.
If you’re mentoring for the first time, you should be prepared to set aside a good amount of time initially to help them understand your project and what you want them to do. I have weekly meetings to get updates and help progress. I have my door open always, so that they can come in with questions. I advise them to get all their questions together and come in at the end of the day or once in two days. The questions they ask are sometimes basic, but it helps me understand that they’re really interested in probing the depths of the topic. Otherwise they would not be asking questions.
And your best advice for mentees?
I always tell mentees: When deciding your final choice for residency, make sure it’s something you’re passionate about. Make sure it’s something you will still want to do 30 years down the road. Otherwise, it’s just a job, not a career. You should not get bored with what you’re doing. You’ll never give 100 percent to it if you are bored.
Many folks come to me interested in cardiac surgery, so whenever there’s an opportunity for them to attend our major meetings or to shadow a cardiac surgeon at one of them, I’ll pass that along. At these meetings, they can hear about clinical and basic research and hear people talk about career advancement and the difficulties they’ve faced and decide whether this is the field they want to follow. It’s a long training to become a cardiac surgeon, and even longer if you want to be a pediatric cardiac surgeon. You need to be passionate about it because it’s 10 to 12 years of training. So it helps open their eyes.