In praise of the research mentor.

On this day 29th February in the year 2000 I started my life as a computational biologist. This date sticks in my mind because of the uniqueness of the leap year date and because it was the day of the interview for my first postdoctoral job. I’d applied to work in Oxford with Chris Ponting for a number of reasons, Oxford seemed like a good name to have on my CV, I had friends working there but mostly because of Chris’ work on the human genome project that would be published later the same year.

I was lucky to be offered the post the same day and traveling back to Glasgow where my unfinished PhD thesis awaited was a mix of excitement and nervousness. I was a molecular biologist with an interest in finding out what genes and their products do, I had no programming or real computational experience but I was keen to learn. Chris was supportive from the outset providing a stimulating environment to work in, providing access to data and challenging problems. I left nearly four years later with 11 papers published, including two genome papers (this was the time of the genome “golden age”), having secured an MRC fellowship to head to UCL and Ziheng Yang  (another excellent mentor). During my time at Oxford the role of the research mentor became clear, a good mentor should of course provide support and expertise but should also be a role model in how to conduct relevant research who also allows you to grow as an individual scientist.

So to the thrust of this piece, advice on choosing a place the conduct your postdoctoral research.
  1. Choose the post that provides not only an interesting project for you but one that is of interest to those around you. Conversations and advice from others will be invaluable and will stimulate knowledge of a range of subjects without having to read every paper published.
  2. Pick a group leader with interest in your project so you are challenged to produce results not primarily for output’s sake but because they are exciting to the group leader and will interweave with other research in the group.
  3. Importantly pick someone you like, a good mentor is with you for life (i have some great photos of Chris dancing wildly at my wedding years later).
Returning to dates of significance, having written my thesis I started my postdoc a month later on April 1st unsure if I or Chris was the fool.
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