Choosing Owls – Mentors in Research

As a research neophyte with essentially nothing to show off so far, I mostly hope to be judged by the company I keep. The difference between being the hungry caterpillar that makes it to the next juicy research morsel and the one whose last study is of the internal anatomy of a bird’s beak may well be influenced by those who help guide me there. The relationship with a suitable mentor isn’t always easy to establish, and isn’t always met by a supervisor (and despite my fondness for Jerry Seinfeld as research mentor, he’s not always available to chat). Unsurprisingly, as with so many fields, there are some nut jobs in research (so I’m told if you’re reading this esteemed and noble supervisor). Having been lucky myself, I’d rate the following features highly, although I’d be happy to hear other tips or murmurs of dissent…

1. Go with Youth

Perhaps wide-eyed is not how you want your mentor to look [via]

Perhaps wide-eyed is not how you want your mentor to look [via]

Actually don’t. Well, not so much as measured by age but experience. Youthful vigour is one thing, but having a mentor who is also stumbling through the new rules of the wild woods is ultimately frustrating. I’ve been there, and wouldn’t recommend it. You’ll get mauled by a rabid racoon in those very woods.

2. No Alarms and No Surprises

I’m not making Radiohead references here but there’s a look I don’t want a mentor to have when I disclose my latest moment of research idiocy …

Please put your ear tufts down when I'm confessing … [via]

Please put your ear tufts down when I’m confessing … [via]

The last thing I’m wanting in a mentor is someone who greets every event as a harbinger of doom or herald of dizzying success. I’m quite interested in them reflecting research reality, which is generally somewhere between the outer extremes of disaster and stupendousness.

3. But Grumpiness Isn’t It Either

Mentors are allowed to get excited when warranted and be appropriately encouraging (yes, I am the research equivalent of an awful archetype in a trashy magazine, I’d like it all thanks). One of the most important moments in my fledgling research career was when I first approached my boss with an idea that involved flying in helicopters to patients and monitoring their brains to see what we’d find. He could have opened with “oh that’ll be impossible”. He went with “gee that sounds interesting, how would we do that?” As a result, we’re the length of a grasshopper’s rear leg hair from recruiting, rather than pondering when to cut those toenails.

Yes, you hollering is sometimes appropriate [via]

Yes, hollering is sometimes appropriate [via]

4. Perspectives

Almost the most important one is that I want a mentor who looks at any conundrum I present more like this …

I agree, that is a bit weird [via]

I agree, that is a bit weird [via]

A valuable mentor will hopefully look at the same problem from a perspective that I wouldn’t. This extends to being prepared to point out when I’m displaying the intelligent decision-making of a naked mole rat purchasing a tanning bed. A mentor who lacks the ability to ever consider setting you straight is just a booster and will fail their role when it’s most needed.

6. The Wise Bit

Ultimately all of the above plus an element of wisdom is would be ideal. This is doubly hard to pick if you’re interacting with people you’ve never met before. However, the wisdom that comes from prior research experience can bear lots of fruit for the next person around. Of my two main mentors, there is one who has been at it not quite so long, but does a stellar job of keeping me going or subtly redirecting me. This is usually done without expending four syllables when two will do (we do not have that trait in common). A most excellent skill set for a PhD supervisor.

My other main mentor, who is also one of my bosses, has done the example by action thing rather impressively. He was instrumental in setting up a randomised controlled trial of prehospital care systems in the setting of traumatic brain injury (called the Head Injury Retrieval Trial or HIRT). Apart from the appeal of the topic, the effort required to set it up and do it is a bit astonishing.

The idea first hit in 1999. It took 6 years to plan and develop to the point of recruiting a patient. This process involved negotiation with multiple hospitals, the NHMRC Clinical Trials Centre, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, ambulance and fire services and air traffic control, to mention a few. The recruitment took another 6 years and faced numerous external threats and distortions beyond the control of the research team. The first core paper took 2 years to put together. Now it is finally out there, describing the rather dry details of the trial methodology. The results paper is still to come.

Not only does he have numerous reference points to draw on in giving advice, he has insight into the specific challenges in my field. It also puts my 3 years of work setting things up in some perspective (and perspective in a PhD student is something that could just be as rare as orthodontic work on a chook).

As to how to find the wise mentor, well you could try and find someone who looks as serious as this …

Yes that is quite serious [via]

Yes that is quite serious [via]

Alternatively, you could try to identify them from those you know already, so that you’re judging the qualities you need on more than a few minutes notice. It’s not a speed dating event.

A good mentor is an essential part of the mix for the junior researcher, particularly for the moments where the light at the end of the tunnel feels like a train about to hit you. Or even a train rapidly reversing. It’s one more time in life that it’s not just what you know but who you know that counts in your favour.


Jerry Seinfeld – Research Mentor

For a couple of annoying years I did the wedding MC circuit. Always the MC, never the embarrassing interloper. This is not something I enjoy. The MC gig is the one you get when you’re not so important to the couple that they want you involved for the truly meaningful bits, but they know you well enough to be fairly certain you’ll stick to the rules. You know not too dark, not too insulting, light on the nudity. I’ve recited bits of self-written sonnetry and memorised bits of foreign language diatribes. And in my pursuit of the level of “drawing an occasional smirk and no walk outs” I’ve come to greatly respect actual comedians. Be they improv superstars or super scripted performers, I stand in awe of all. And I have come to this conclusion:

Everything I need to know about my work, I can learn from Jerry Seinfeld.

Building Cricket Cages

He’s not everyone’s cup of herbal strained foliage dregs, but I’ve been a fan since the early days of the sitcom. A while back I came across this profile from the NY Times Magazine (bit of a longread). The thing I found most interesting is not just that he keeps bashing away at it to feed an obsession. The fascinating element is his obsession with approaching perfection, be it in the door mechanism of a 1957 Porsche or continual whittling away to create the perfect bit. Seinfeld crafts his jokes over more than just a couple of sessions – he keeps at it over years. Take as an example the joke about the marriage game of chess with the board made of flowing water and the pieces made of smoke. The key to the joke delivering was drawing a board in the air. Some years after he started performing it.

It turns out that he’s describing pretty much the process of being an anaesthetist (alright, there’s a bunch of really easy gags to make right about there, so I’m just going to wait patiently while you run through them…

… done? OK, moving on).

I’m not talking so much about the patter most of us work on to try and win the patient over. We only have a few brief minutes before patients, in a place of exquisite vulnerability, put their trust in a stranger. The routine for kids can be particularly challenging and confronting to hopes of retaining dignity in the workplace. Of course, most comedians probably don’t have the option of turning up the sleepy gas to make the heckling stop.

The real similarity is in the pursuit of ever incremental steps towards the perfect anaesthetic. Anaesthetists can obsess over the smallest detail of every element of what they do to try and produce the perfect parameters. A discussion of taping in a cannula can take up a leisurely lunch on a day off. It’ s a slow march towards small moments of perfection. To build the cricket cages that Mr Seinfeld reveres.

Actually, it's really impressive, but I'd just let the bug go and be a bug.

Actually, it’s really impressive, but I’d just let the bug go and be a bug.

Building Perfect Research for the Side of the Road

I had another MC gig a while back. This time at a conference (a whole different type of angry after that one, but that’s for another day). One of the speakers in the session was the principal investigator for a trial of an automatic chest compression machine for giving CPR to patients suffering cardiac arrest. What followed was a seriously impressive presentation of how to strive for the cricket cage when doing prehospital research.

The prehospital environment is by its nature messy. It isn’t a pristine lab where elements are easy (well, easier) to try and control. There’s often a bit of dodging the stuff that’s flying while trying to get the job done. Trying to manage this is a big challenge for a researcher trying to perform high quality work in a place defined by chaos.

The investigators for this study, the CIRC trial, published their study design a while back in Resuscitation.

CIRC Design

A big flaw they’d identified in previous research comparing the machines with people doing CPR was the possibility that those getting compressions hadn’t received good quality CPR, particularly as measured by amount of time actually receiving the vital compressions. So they set about addressing it. Across the 3 participating countries, they put more than 5000 prehospital providers through a standardised 4 hours training program. They then had them undertake exams to prove they were up to scratch. Then each centre had a period where their ability to deliver on the protocol was assessed before they were allowed to recruit. Follow-up assessments of quality and regular re-training were also part of the script. It’s not in here, but in the presentation the good Dr Wik also mentioned that every included patient had the duration of time and depth of CPR measured directly (including by transthoracic impedance).

The result – more than 80% of the time that patients were being treated in either the machine or manual compression group, they were receiving effective compressions. As compressions are vital to success of CPR, this is really important. And it’s around 20% more efficient than any equivalent prehospital study in the area has ever demonstrated. It’s staggering. It’s the sort of result anyone prior would have said was impossible.

I’m actually not going to get into the results (basically equivalent between the two groups, with lots of reasons given). The standout feature was the level of effort required to overcome the challenges of the setting. If we want to build an excellent research project, looking cool in flight suits doesn’t remove the need to be absolutely rigorous in getting the data.

So now we’re building our cricket cages, or examining the door of the Porsche. Before we even get going we know we need to simulate our jobs on ovals and in upturned cars, design our education plans and test our ability to collect the data reliably. It couldn’t be more vital to a good idea to get our script right, to test it out and whittle away to make it astounding. We might not reach perfection, but we should at least aim to make the Norwegian guy jealous. And if anyone feels like chipping in a 1957 Porsche Speedster for the simulations, we will make good use of it.