Comments from Nominators
In the following, the nominators of the winners of the Nature Awards for Creative Mentoring in Science share some of their experiences of being mentored and tell us what makes the two winners so special.
Lifetime Achievement Award: Prof. Fumio Oosawa
The thing that most surprised me when I joined the Oosawa group was that everybody called Prof. Oosawa “Oosawa-san” [rather than the much more formal “Oosawa sensei”]. Also, he did not have an office as such. Rather, he placed a table in one corner of a big room containing a single large desk and a long blackboard. He almost never sat at the table and worked, preferring instead to walk around the lab collaring people and talking with them.
[I always had the feeling that] I am sitting on the periphery of the Oosawa school and in fact I have not even authored any papers jointly with Prof. Oosawa. Indeed at times it seems he is barely aware of such things as this. However, if realized that, without my knowing it, Prof. Oosawa influenced me as a mentor silently, just by the way he went about his life.
He [Prof. Oosawa] is very easy-going and he made me realize that rather than dwelling on all the little things that probably won’t work, if you just enjoy your research and go for it, then you might just hit on something really big, the stuff that dreams are made of.
Prof. Oosawa always takes great delight in the success of his students and wastes no time in telling his many friends and acquaintances around the world proudly about what we have achieved. It was thanks to this that I gained international recognition at an early stage and this had a profound impact on my subsequent career.
Prof. Oosawa is a man possessed of an even temperament. I have never heard him raise his voice nor have I never heard of anyone being scolded by him. He never criticizes anybody. He never coerces anyone. He always approaches everyone with the same mild manner.
The most attractive thing about Prof. Oosawa is, first and foremost, that unmistakable way of speaking. He even says himself that he has a good memory for anecdotes and it is true that when he talks to you it is always about something concrete (and you feel you were actually there) and frank (and can be a little too frank for comfort at times), but never boring. He is also adept at drawing beautiful diagrams and using clever metaphors to get his point across. This too is part of his charm.
[Prof. Oosawa] will always take an interest in any problem and tells you it’s fascinating. And his comments will never be simple run-of-the-mill responses but will have his own characteristic flavor. On the other hand he can be acerbic about those things he considers to be no good. He is never dismissive of the quality of research but has little time for authoritarianism.
During discussion of research themes requiring an understanding of complex theoretical issues Prof. Oosawa always tries to explain things in way that is as accessible and easy to comprehend as possible. With this approach Prof. Oosawa opens the discussion to researchers from a different theoretical background and this, as he is not afraid to admit, has often led him to come up with new ideas and thoughts as well.
The Oosawa style of mentoring is to put himself on the same level as the student or young researcher and offer well-chosen words of advice and valuable suggestions about a research topic. He then gives the researcher a chance to think carefully about the matter themselves, before stepping away and letting them get on with the work themselves.
In the 1960s women who were able to carve out an independent career as a scientist – no matter how dedicated they were – were extremely rare. Prof. Oosawa is one of the very few people at that time that successfully mentored female students. In so doing he showed that this kind of mentor could be an inspiration for male students as well.
Through my association with Prof. Oosawa, the students who graduate from my laboratory have had the opportunity to benefit from being mentored directly by him at the bench (accompanied by many of his anecdotes and stories). Even now some of them still consult him from time to time. In this way, Prof. Oosawa has acted as a “grandfather” mentor to many researchers.
Mid-career Award: Dr. Hiroaki Kitano
Dr. Kitano is always ready to invest wholeheartedly in apparently absurd ideas (in some ways the more absurd the better). In return all he demands is that you take responsibility if the endeavor ends in failure. He never gets bogged down in details, but stresses the importance of seeing the big picture. Also, he actively seeks to gain international exposure for his young researchers by making them the Corresponding Author on papers. I think that Dr. Kitano’s distinctive mentoring style – his decisiveness and his respect for the individual – comes from the fact that he is not a pure product of the Japanese scientific educational system.
The ERATO Kitano Symbiotic Systems Project was truly “symbiotic”. On the top floor we were struggling to teach a robot to play soccer in the name of investigating robot design. On the lower floor we were experimenting and debating amongst ourselves as to how we were going to turn such an ephemeral concept as this thing called “systems biology” into a reality. The experience of being in a place so stimulating, where two such different things were so comfortably accommodated, has proved invaluable to me in creating the research environment that I have in the research team I currently run.
I have noticed the value of what I learned from Dr. Kitano most when I am involved in running organizations. In motivating young researchers towards their work. In having the patience to overcome the problems that always occur when ideal meets reality. Also, I have learned that the way in which one follows ones vision, establishes a worldwide network and works in partnership a large number of collaborators is not restricted to the scientific and technological arena but applies equally to all aspects of business as well. The lessons I learned from Dr. Kitano – who takes the view that leaders should stand up at the head of the line, shoulder the responsibility and push resolutely forward – have stood me mentally in good stead and continue to do so.
Dr. Kitano has a profound knowledge of a very wide range of scientific fields. Not only this but he is a skillful manager, and is always cool-headed but makes challenging decisions.
[His] resolutely positive attitude in any circumstance produces an atmosphere of “nothing is impossible” and makes all those around him approach whatever difficulties there may be with an optimistic outlook.
Dr. Kitano invariably gives something of benefit in one form or another to people he talks with. I believe that his virtually unparalleled international network of connections is more than a little to do with this trait.
Dr. Kitano constantly tosses ideas to members of his research group which are so far ahead of their time as to verge on clairvoyance. At the time, many of these ideas are far outside the accepted framework of conventional wisdom at the time, so as to appear outrageous to those conventionally-minded researchers. However, when the implications of these ideas have been carefully considered and seriously addressed, what results is an original and completely new form of science that only the person who received the ideas could have come up with. I still have several of Dr. Kitano’s “outrageous ideas” within me tucked away like pots of treasure.
The ability [Dr. Kitano’s] to be both an outstanding scientist and at the same time able to attract so many young researchers is in no small part due to the clarity of his vision and the overwhelming effort which he applies to turn this vision into reality.
Dr. Kitano is a very generous and accommodating mentor who leads through his vision, creativity and personal charisma.
Dr. Kitano’s science is incredibly enjoyable. I guess that this comes from the joy of doing “big science”.