Science Feature

What the best mentors do

The 2019 Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science honours two scientists from India who prioritize people over competition and publications.

Amber Dance

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.25 Published online 6 February 2020

Two scientists, who won kudos from their protegees for being attentive to students’ well-being, ideas and accomplishments, have received the 2019 Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science.

Vidita Vaidya, winner of one of the 2019 Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science.

© Bhavisha Kaku Shah

Vidita Vaidya, a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, received the mid-career achievement award. Roddam Narasimha, who collected the lifetime-achievement award, is a fluid dynamicist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru, India. Both earned praise from former trainees for prioritizing the success of their laboratory members over competition or a publish-or-perish mentality, and for the joy they find in science.

Nature’s mentoring-award programme, which in 2019 marked its 15th year, annually confers two prizes: one for a mid-career mentor, and the other for a lifetime of achievement in mentoring. Each year, the awards recognize mentors from a different country or region. The 2019 awards sought nominations from India, a country that produced 24,300 PhD graduates in 2014, the fourth-highest number in the world after the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. The nominations were judged by a panel that included Indian scientists working in the nation and abroad; each award had a prize of 700,000 rupees (US$9,800).

Students first

“To share the joy of what I do with people who are much younger than me and starting their journey — that’s truly the legacy that matters most,” says Vaidya. She studies mental health, and is aware of the toll that graduate studies, along with the setbacks inherent to research, can take on students. Her philosophy is to put “people over productivity”.

That approach ends up being good for the lab’s output, too, she adds. “Once you do that, and you have people’s backs, the productivity emerges.”

Vaidya learnt her mentorship skills from several advisers at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where she earned her PhD. She still treasures the moment when neuroscientist Amy Arnsten gave her a card celebrating her successful qualifying exam. “I don’t know too many people in science who would write a card,” Vaidya says. To her, it showed that the senior researcher understood what a huge achievement it is for a young student to pass that exam.

Trainees who nominated Vaidya praised her willingness to share data, her generosity with her time and ideas, and her close involvement in their training and careers. “Long after I left the Vaidya lab, I still find myself reaching for the phone for advice, fully confident that Professor Vaidya would always make time to lend an ear and mentor,” wrote one. “I feel incredibly lucky to be part of Professor Vaidya’s scientific lineage.”

India’s talent pool

Those who nominated Narasimha lauded his accessibility, openness to students’ thoughts and dissenting opinions, and insistence on giving credit for their work and ideas. One noted that Narasimha makes no judgements on the basis of gender, caste or background — and took this approach well before ‘diversity’ was a buzzword.

Roddam Narasimha, winner of the lifetime-achievement award.

©  Roddam Narasimha

Narasimha, too, benefited from strong mentorship early in his career. As an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, he studied with mathematician and aerospace engineer Satish Dhawan, who could have obtained a position abroad but chose to work in India, Narasimha says. “I learnt a great deal from him about how you can get things done without actually having to be strict,” he recalls. Dhawan also taught Narasimha to tackle research that would have applications that benefit India. During his career, Narasimha has worked on aerospace-technology development, a computing initiative and university science education.

Narasimha is passionate about encouraging Indian students in science. “There’s a lot of talent in India,” he says. He delights in recounting the achievements of his trainees who have reached national and international acclaim.

Narasimha himself studied at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena before returning to his homeland to encourage young scientists there. “My duty as a mentor,” he says, “is to encourage those who have a genuine interest in the subject and help them as much as possible, but to also acknowledge their talent.”

[First published in Nature.]