April 14, 2016

Personalized mentoring creates win-win relationships in Zhou’s lab

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Yong Zhou sizedTucked away on the fourth floor of Tinsley Harrison Tower sits the tiny office of an associate professor in the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine. The interior is tidy and unassuming, matching the demeanor of its occupant, Yong Zhou, Ph.D., an independent investigator who explores the microscopic world of fibroblasts that live in the extracellular matrix of the lung.

In the course of conducting his RO1-funded research in mechanobiology aimed at discovering a molecular target for the treatment of lung fibrosis, Zhou directly supervises three post-doctoral scholars in his lab and indirectly advises several other junior faculty members. He also sits on the thesis committees of six graduate students in pursuit of their doctoral degrees. Even so, Zhou never expected to be nominated, much less win, the 2015 Dean’s Excellence Award in Mentoring.

“I was surprised,” Zhou said, who doesn’t view mentoring as a separate scholarly activity, but rather as an integral part of the investigative process. “Mentoring people is making what you are doing better. You do better things, achieve higher goals,” he explains. For him, learning and discovery are the heart of a productive lab.

So is patience. It takes a combination of time and persistence to find the best questions and design experiments to answer them. One of his graduate advisees in biomedical engineering came to Zhou with a goal of getting fibroblasts to adhere to electrospun (man-made) fibers intending to study how a particular gene changed based on the arrangement of the fibers. After several rounds of adjustment, the experiment still failed to prove the hypothesis.

“But he still has to graduate. So I suggested another array to look at. Not just one gene, but 84 genes,” Zhou remembers. The modification made all the difference, and now the student has results that are under review in PLOS ONE as well as his degree. To Zhou, this is the most gratifying part of mentoring—the payoff after a long period of struggling to find an answer.

Zhou credits much of his mentoring success to UAB professor of Pathology, Joanne Murphy-Ullrich, Ph.D. As an internationally renowned expert in transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta (a profibrotic cytokine that drives tissue fibrosis), she always made time to cultivate Zhou’s scientific curiosity. Moreover, she made everyone in the lab feel like a part of her family. “She still sends me birthday greetings every year,” he says fondly.

All told, Zhou spent seven years in Murphy-Ullrich’s lab—two and a half years as a postdoctoral fellow, two and a half years as Research Associate, and two as Instructor—before becoming a faculty member in the pulmonary division. Even with Murphy-Ullrich’s tremendous example to follow, Zhou initially had to experiment to find the best ways of handling his own mentees.  

“Not every trainee learns the same way. Adjusting the approach that worked with a previous student is often required,” Zhou notes. “And not every mentor is gung-ho for investing in the trainees. Often, it takes less time to finish things by yourself, but when you get past the initial breaking in phase, they can help you accomplish the bigger things that you cannot do on your own. Good stuff happens.”

That good stuff is the synergy that comes from informed, intellectual discussions, where ideas are triggered and nuances discovered. “They teach me,” says Zhou. And while he is always accessible, he is careful not to dictate how his mentees should approach their work, believing it is important for students to have the freedom to think differently from himself. “I want them to create their own ideas and develop problem solving. I tell them, ‘If you have a different opinion, tell me, or don’t tell me. Try it your own way. Get the data, and let’s discuss what you find out,’” Zhou explains.

The approach is apparently paying off. After publishing two first-author papers as well as co-authoring a paper with Zhou in a high-impact journal, one of the post-doctoral fellows in Zhou’s lab recently accepted a research associate position in Missouri.

For Zhou, this success enhances his own. “Investing in the mentoring process reaps a harvest of reward. It’s a win-win,” Zhou concludes with a smile.