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What Makes a Good Mentor?

Editors’ Note: After several decades in the U.S., renowned researcher Jacques Grosset M.D., professor, Center for Tuberculosis Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine, is retiring and returning to his native France. Earlier this year, at the invitation of his friend, Einstein’s William Jacobs, Jr., Ph.D., professor of microbiology & immunology and HHMI investigator, Dr. Grosset spoke at the College of Medicine. He and Dr. Jacobs later sat down and discussed their decades-long history of mentoring and collaboration.

Drs. Jacobs and Grosset first met at a leprosy conference in Louisiana, where Dr. Jacobs, then a graduate student, overcame a presentation flub with support from Dr. Grosset, whom he’d never met. In this excerpt from a video interview, Einstein’s director of multimedia communications, Sunita Reed, asks the investigators about the importance of mentoring.

NOTE: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

To see the entire wide-ranging conversation about their friendship and careers in research,
please visit https://youtu.be/S8zVYE6g7yc

Q: What do you think is one of the most important things that you’ve learned from Dr. Grosset?

Dr. Jacobs: One of my earliest mentors, Roy Curtis III said to me, “Bill, there is no sin in being ignorant. The sin is to remain ignorant.” And you know what? That is shared by Jacques.  Unequivocally. That sort of acceptance Jacques has always encouraged — at any meeting I’ve ever been at or with any student I’ve ever seen him with. He encouraged them to go ahead and ask questions. And that, I think, is an eternal lesson that will always stay with me.

Q: I’ve heard both of you mention your mentors. And it seems as though this is a very important part of your lives and how your careers have evolved. Can you talk more your protégées, the people in  your lab; how do you help them?

GROSSET: I may be the mentor but he [Dr. Jacobs] is, in a way, a mentor for me because the great majority of what I have understood about genetics, and so on, comes from him.

JACOBS: I was just thinking, in a lot of ways, our protégées are our children. You know one thing I’ve always said to my children, “It doesn’t matter if you like science or not” — neither one of them are scientists — “but find something you love and do it.” I tell everybody who walks in my office, if this isn’t what excites you — then go find something that does. He [Dr. Grosset] still has the enthusiasm and I do [too]. The day that I can’t think of a new experiment to do, it’s time to step out.

GROSSET: I think our role is to push the guy who wants to be pushed — who is ready to be pushed.

JACOBS: Everybody’s different. But I think the key is acceptance and encouragement and giving them freedom…

GROSSET: [Interposing] Yeah, freedom — and responsibility.

JACOBS: Yes, we don’t dictate what they do.

GROSSET: No, no.

JACOBS: We’ll critique their work, we’ll look at it, we’ll challenge them but we give them freedom.

Q: What is something that a mentor should not do?

JACOBS: Oh. [Laughing] Be very domineering and controlling. Yeah, I think that’s the kiss of death. What takes people away from science is [that] they’re discouraged and they’re disheartened…

GROSSET: Plenty of mentors are not mentors. They are chiefs. They are making their careers and they are ready to use their collaborators for their own interest.

JACOBS: Right.

GROSSET: That is rare, you know…

Q: But in those rare cases, what kind of advice would you give to young researchers who find themselves in that situation?

JACOBS: Get out of it, if possible.

GROSSET: Yeah. Fly away!

Q: What is your hope for TB research?

JACOBS: I think we have this eternal hope that what we’re doing will contribute to making a difference.

GROSSET: Yes, exactly.

JACOBS: And that the people we trained, our mentees, are going to have an impact.

GROSSET: Yes, and I try to do my best.

JACOBS: And it’s still fun. 

GROSSET: [Laughing] Yes — it’s still fun.

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