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I am tired of death in the laboratory: focus on the mentor-mentee relationship is needed

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

“Armed, dangerous person on campus. Go inside and avoid windows.” Last Monday, August 28, 2023, was a terrifying day on UNC campus. We all waited in our building—seemingly not knowing what was happening—as a faculty member was killed on campus by his graduate student. Associate Professor Dr. Zijie Yan was shot and killed by his graduate student, Tailei Qi. In the next days, as we learn more, I personally feel like death keeps following me to work. I have decided to write this essay to bring awareness about death and suicide in academia.


I have worked in a powerful group at a prestigious institution; I am also saddened to learn of the deaths of 2 bright students from my group within a 3-month period (Michelle Scott, and Melaine Sebastian in 2020 at Vanderbilt University). Both scientists died of suicide. I cannot speak, legally, of what exactly they encountered. During my time there, however, I encountered many stressing challenges. I saw photos of one, and met the other right before I left the laboratory. During what should have been a wonderful time of starting a doctoral program, both women felt abused and mistreated by many other scientists around them. I read how one woman, who was Black/African American, was mistreated by her colleagues; so was I, when I worked there. I was also told about the last days the other woman was alive—struggling to get help from her own peers. I still cry when repeating this to other people. I have had 2 bosses during that time, and neither of those powerful men knew what to say to me going through that period.


Additionally, in 2023, other prominent scientists have died from suicide, including Samantha Mensah (UCLA) and Nicholas Watkins (Northwestern University). While dealing with the loss of these people (students and faculty), I do wonder: what type of mentor-mentee relationship builds to that level? When I once described the ideal mentor-mentee relationship to a therapist, I described a situation where the faculty member sees the student (or postdoc) as a new colleague that they are building into a scientist. I do this with my students that I work with. So, why do we keep having loss of life and death in the scientific laboratories?


Helping Myself

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was about 21, and have needed medical care ever since. I actually learned, while attending graduate school, that suicide happens frequently across all campuses in the United States. It is tough to actually get data, but every one of the professors or administrators I speak to has dealt in some way with this loss. During my time of graduate school I received many aggressions, and I cried a few times my first year. I have talked about this briefly, in a Science article (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36603074/) and a Nature Q&A (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36854730/).


Everyone wants to help graduate students and postdocs succeed. The National Institutes of Health offers Resilience strategies, and most schools have counseling and mental health support resources and programs. Sadly, it is simply not enough. I was told by many that I was a “tough” girl; I think I am extremely soft. I was also told I was too analytical or strategic; clearly my goals for equality and equity were not good enough for them. For nearly 19 years I have seen multiple psychiatrists (MD), psychologists (PhD), and therapists (LCSW). I’ve done individual and group counseling. I take a medication that works well for me, and added another during graduate school. I have been off/on medications through the years (and read an interesting book by Dr. David Karp, “Is it me or my meds?” concerning this topic), but I have tried to learn how to take care of myself mentally. I have been in extremely tough situations—abused by peers and advisors—and yet, somehow figured out how to help myself. I have been fighting to live. I have met others who are doing the same. Unfortunately, we are still losing precious lives in the laboratory.


Relationship with Mentor

Of all the different bosses I have had, the best memories were when we had a solid mentor-mentee relationship. I could tell him when I thought I had done an experiment poorly, or ask questions about why we would go one route versus another. But what makes a good mentor-mentee relationship? Communication, trust, and constructive feedback are definitely included. However, when I think of bad relationships—some with jealousy, mistrust, and no understanding from the mentor—it makes me question if we train people to help others adequately. If your student is depressed, anxious, neurodivergent, or having any difficulties along the way, you should step back and help them. If it is writing, help them write. Give actual written feedback and go over multiple drafts. If it is speaking, give them helpful critiques and help them practice again (even public presentations, which are hard but very fruitful to do repeatedly as a scientist). Be open and frank: allow, for example, your grad student/postdoc to sit at another PI's lab meetings to learn critical science.


It is hard to say this frankly, but treating scientists with dignity is the start we all need. I always recommend sending someone to speak to a counselor, but I also understand they may come from a cultural background where they were told it was unacceptable. As an African American woman, I experienced that. Even so, reading items from the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) can help. I also mentally started to frame and understand things differently. For instance, communication and teaching are important aspects of leaders, but they are not selected for when someone becomes a professor. I have to understand the perspective of the mentor, and I hope they understand my perspective as well when I give feedback.

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