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Nov. 30, 2009

Mentoring the Mental

by Dana Greenfield

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Like Mother Like Doctor Banner

Yellow Brick RoadI know in my last post I expounded following one’s own interests, without any particular roadmap. This approach definitely has its positives. But sometimes confusion and uncertainty appear, and choices can be difficult to make. Solution? Mentors as my guideposts: While I may not be sure what might lay ahead, for the immediate future, they have helped me to know that at least I was in the right place.

Times have changed. And so have the kinds of advice and guidance that young people need. Maybe back in the 50s and 60s when you (mom) were growing up, mentorship of young women was up against much more narrow and stifling gender stereotypes. Mentors were needed to open the door, make more things possible for more girls.

For me, mentorship has served a very different function. I grew up in very different circumstances. The 80s and 90s were more liberated times. I was raised by two surgeons, and never were we allowed to believe that less was expected of girl. But even with such strong role models that didn’t mean that I didn’t need help.

Today’s world is so much more complex. The opportunities may have exploded, but learning to navigate these opportunities has never been more difficult.

Mom, you needed permission to pursue your dreams. I needed focus. My life was and still is marked by too many overwhelming possibilities. And my mentors have always been there to refocus my limitless vision.

I have so many questions that can have so many answers: What kind of doctor do I want to be? Where do I want to practice? What kind of anthropology do I want to do? Where should I do my fieldwork? How does it all fit together into a nice neat package of a career?

Even the more immediate, smaller concerns gnaw at me: Which clinical rotations should I do this summer? Am I doing enough reading, writing, research, extra-curriculars, etc? When should I start studying for the board exams? How do I compare to every other second year med student?

My advisors at Barnard, my research mentors all over the world, the many physicians and researchers who teach me at UCSF everyday, and, of course, my family have all done (and do) two crucial things: 1. they gave me a chance at my dreams and 2. they helped me stay on track amidst all the chaos and uncertainty.

My meetings with my PhD advisor: I am worried what I’ll write my dissertation on, how I’ll pick a topic, a place or a community, or how I compare to my more entrepreneurial and innovative colleagues. With a knowing smile she reminds me of my strengths, my ideas, and gently nudges me to stay on track and keep my eyes, ears, and mind open all at the same time. And bam! I’m a new person and life makes sense again.

I guess it doesn’t seem so impressive on paper, but these sorts of interactions have an intangible magic all of their own.

Maybe it’s just me. Or perhaps I’m too insecure or just too willing to admit it. But I need these guideposts at regular intervals, checking in along my way.

So if, like me, you’re prone to flurries of ideas, abundant curiosity and a little (well, ok, a lot) of angst, look for mentors who can help you harness the energy of uncertainty to take you in positive, yet uncharted directions.

About Dana Greenfield

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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