Three of Brazil’s best scientist mentors share their insights

Carlos Menck with his colleagues and students in the lab

Carlos Menck, second from the left, has won the lifetime achievement in mentoring.Credit: Gustavo Satoru Kajitani

Every year, the Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science focus on a different country or region. The 2021 awards recognize researchers in Brazil. Carlos Menck, a molecular biologist at the University of São Paulo, won the award for lifetime achievement. Alessandra Filardy, an immunologist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and Waldiceu Verri, a pharmacologist at the State University of Londrina, shared the award for mid-career achievement in mentoring.

All three winners acknowledged the challenges of motivating and inspiring the next generation of researchers at a time of great financial, political and social turmoil that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In October 2021, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill that effectively cut federal funding for science by 90%. “The last couple of years have been very difficult for everyone in Brazil, not just scientists,” Verri says. “I try not to show my disappointments to students. They need to see the light at the end.”

Menck adds: “I always try to tell [students] that this is just a storm. I’ve been through other storms, although not as strong.”

Effective mentorship becomes even more important in difficult times, and all three winners have delivered. The four judges, led by Nature editor-in-chief Magdalena Skipper, noted the “infectious enthusiasm” expressed by Menck’s students in their nomination materials. One student praised his efforts to help young researchers from smaller, poorly funded universities find a place in his laboratory.

Filardy earned praise from judges for her “personal mentoring style”. A nominating student wrote: “She is not simply the boss, she is part of the team … [she gives] us all structure and strength to continue in research.”

Verri was singled out for his commitment to supporting lab members from a wide variety of backgrounds. A student wrote that Verri has always stressed that “diversity creates welcoming environments, with less judgement and more openness for everyone”.

The winners were announced on 28 January. Menck receives a US$10,000 cash prize, and Filardy and Verri share another $10,000. In interviews with Nature, they discussed their approaches to mentorship and offered advice to other lab leaders who want to encourage and support their teams.

CARLOS MENCK: lifetime achievement in mentoring

Encourage responsibility. In Brazil, labs are mostly run by PhD students. We don’t have many postdocs or technicians. Students are obviously still learning, but it’s important to instil a sense of responsibility in them. That’s the only way to build trust. From the beginning, I let them find their own pace. I’m not on them all the time, asking them today what they did yesterday. They have to work out how to manage their time and take ownership of the results.

Find good fits. Lab work isn’t for everyone. It’s like a marriage. If the fit isn’t right, it will be painful for all involved. Students in Brazil often have a chance to intern in multiple labs before they start their PhD programmes, so most of them know what they’re getting into when they join a lab. Even then, there can be problems. If someone wants to leave, I understand.

Start early. I started a first-year undergraduate course on biomedical science 15 years ago. I think students should get in the lab when they’re 17 or 18 years old. Some people say that’s too early for real science. Of course it’s too early. But it gives students a chance to see how a lab works and whether they like it. If they’re exposed to lab work when they’re young, there’s a stronger possibility that they’ll continue with science. Getting more people into science has been a lifelong goal of mine.

Help underprivileged students to find their place. Many graduate students need a fellowship to afford their programmes, and I do everything I can to make sure they have one. But they have to do their part. It’s not just given to them. Students will e-mail me and ask whether I have any fellowships available, and the answer is yes — but only if they can write up a specific project proposal. We’ll discus every aspect of the project, and I’ll help with the writing if necessary. Sometimes, it’s a lot of work for me, but it’s worth it. Scientific training can give them a chance at a better life.

Alessandra Filardy's Lab group

Alessandra Filardy, third from the left on the top row, shares the award for mid-career mentoring achievement.Credit: Ricardo Moratelli

ALESSANDRA FILARDY: mid-career mentoring achievement

Get personal. I try to meet individually with students every week. We talk about science first, but I’m open to hearing about other problems. Depression and anxiety are not uncommon in students at the university level. If they feel comfortable talking about personal issues, I listen and try to help them. I’ll offer any support I can or recommend university services. If they need to spend time with their family at home because they’re not feeling OK, I’ll let them do that.

Support alternative paths. Not all students want to stay in academia, and I respect that. I know that the best-possible scientific training will be good for them, no matter what they do in life. One of my former undergraduate students recently got a job as a recruiter for a consulting company. She’s very happy. Brazilian universities are facing hard times, so encouraging students to pursue jobs beyond academia is a way to stay positive. I tell them they can find interesting jobs at other institutions or in other sectors. It gives them some hope.

Help to build networks. I tell all of my students to go to scientific meetings whenever possible. During the pandemic, I have encouraged them to attend virtual conferences. It’s one of the best ways to establish networks. I also encourage them to talk to other students at the university. If you just stay in the lab without talking to others, who will know what you are doing?I try to set a good example by collaborating widely, nationally and internationally. Whenever possible, I include students in those projects so that they get their own taste of collaboration. It’s a domino effect.

Share failures. Sometimes, students will tell me they’re not good at bench work, and everything is going wrong. I share my own failures with them to encourage them: “I had the same problem too, and here’s how I solved it.” After I say that, they feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and setbacks with me.

Waldiceu Verri's group in the lab

Waldiceu Verri, left, shares the award for mid-career mentoring achievement.Credit: Laboratory of Pain, Inflammation, Neuropathy and Cancer, Londrina State University, Brazil

WALDICEU VERRI: mid-career mentoring achievement

Understand limits and stay realistic. I realize that not all students can spend all of their time in the lab. One of my PhD students has three kids. She has great support from her family, but I can’t expect her to be here every day. We limited her project to see what she could do in the time she has for science. I ask students to be honest about their situations, so we can work out a solution together. It requires trust on both sides.

Support teamwork. When students enter my lab, I make sure they don’t work alone. We develop group projects that require teamwork and collaboration. I can’t be there all the time, so students have to learn from each other and support each other. A student might need a little extra help, perhaps because of a health condition or family obligations. If everyone is open about their own needs and obligations, everyone benefits.I also tell students that we must collaborate with other labs at the university as much as we can. It’s not enough just to see our lab grow. Other labs have to succeed, too. That way, there will always be someone to help when we need it. I always say that no one knows everything.

Keep the door open. State universities in Brazil have greatly increased the enrolment of students from under-represented groups and underprivileged backgrounds in the past decade, and the students in my lab reflect that trend. I make sure everyone feels accepted and welcome. My only concern when recruiting new members is that they really want to work in my lab and collaborate with my team. I can’t force anyone to join my lab, but the door is always open.