Mentoring Matters with Dr. Brian Cohen


Mentoring Matters with Dr. Brian Cohen

Dr. Cohen and some members of his lab group celebrate on graduation day
Dr. Cohen and some members of his lab group celebrate on graduation day

—from the Guest Mentor's Desk

Dr. Brian Cohen is a Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences and Co-Director of Biochemistry at Union College in Schenectady, NY. In his 16 years as a faculty member thus far he has mentored 86 senior thesis students. Connect with him on Twitter @profbdcohen.

Q1: Why is mentoring undergrads in research important to you?

Because I didn't have that mentor as an undergraduate. By the time I expressed an interest in pursuing a career in research, I had missed out on opportunities to get involved.

Q2: What has been the most surprising, difficult, or rewarding part about mentoring undergrads in the lab?

The most surprising part of mentoring undergrads, which is also the most rewarding, is that there is often a disconnect between academic success and research success. Students who find "everything comes easily" for them can struggle in research where answers are not black and white and things don't always work. The students who have had to work for their grades also have a work ethic that frequently translates well into success in the lab.

Q3: What do you wish you would have known (or what skill set do you wish you would have already had) before you started mentoring undergrad researchers?

It took me a long time to figure out how to create mini-"teams" in my lab to get senior undergraduates to mentor the younger students. It creates a real sense of community when the students help each other out. It also helps the seniors to be able to communicate their science (what they are doing and why) which I find helps them when they have to communicate that in graduate studies interviews.

Q4: What have you learned or gained from mentoring undergrads?

On a personal level I see my students' successes as my successes. Whether they go on to graduate programs or health professions or into the workforce, I can look at their progress and take satisfaction that I had some small part in it.

I have to admit that I also take personal joy that the relationships I have built has lead to celebrating with students at their big life events like their weddings, their kids' birthday parties, etc.

[And] I love stories of how students find their path years after they graduate. [Recently] I spoke with a former student who spent several years working & is now pursuing a PhD. I asked him if he saw this as his path 5 yrs ago when he graduated; he literally LOLed.

Are you a mentor to an undergrad in the lab? Do you want to share your experience and be featured as part of our Mentoring Matters series? We welcome experiences from researchers and scientists at all career levels. Click here.