By Jillian Rose Lim
The 2019 Scientific Symposium, held today, May 22, celebrates the Research Institute’s remarkable scientific community: a diverse group of thought leaders, innovators, experts, and early career scientists committed to advancing children’s health. Within this community, faculty mentors play an important role in shaping our culture of research excellence by sharing their wisdom and guidance. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Faculty Mentor Award, which was presented at this morning’s symposium, is a special honor given to faculty investigators whose mentoring has helped their colleagues become the next generation of brilliant researchers at CHOP.
The Research Institute recognized Babette Zemel, PhD, research professor in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition, with the 2019 Faculty Mentor Award. On top of Dr. Zemel’s impactful contributions to the field of bone health and growth research, she has supported many mentees in their journey to make their own scientific contributions, achieve funding, and carve out career paths by securing academic appointments.
To celebrate this unique and special honor, we sat down with Dr. Zemel and picked her brain about the importance of mentoring in academia, what motivates her to continue mentoring, and advice for new or junior researchers who seek a mentor.
Congratulations, Dr. Zemel! Can you tell us a little bit about your research background, and briefly describe the work that you do?
I am a biological anthropologist by training, and I come from an intellectual tradition of trying to understand normal human variation and how it is influenced by genetic, environmental, and socio-cultural factors. During growth and development, children are shaped by these forces, and this is a huge part of what makes us uniquely human. This perspective on growth and nutrition in healthy children is critically important for understanding children who have health issues, because you need to know what's normal in order to be able to evaluate what's not normal. So, from physicians to fellow researchers, I always have fantastic partnerships with the people who I'm working with who are really interested in children who have complex diseases or common chronic diseases.
My research is generally focused on childhood antecedents of obesity and osteoporosis. For example, I’ve just finished data collection on a multi-center study extending our knowledge about bone mineral accretion into the toddler age range. So, for the very first time, we'll really have a handle on how bone strength develops in 1 to 5-year-olds and the factors that influence it.
What does receiving the 2019 Faculty Mentor Award mean to you?
Mentoring is, by far, the most enriching and fulfilling thing that I do. I have the most extraordinary, talented, dedicated people to mentor here at CHOP, coming from diverse disciplines within pediatrics, as well as nursing and anthropology. As I work with them to establish their research programs, I am also learning and expanding my knowledge and experience. It's a journey that we take together. The Faculty Mentor Award is the ultimate recognition of all of those things, and I am deeply, deeply honored.
When did you start mentoring, and why? What motivates you to help the next generation of researchers succeed?
Mentoring is something that I've always done. I absolutely love doing research and I find it exciting to guide, share, and collaborate with others in the process. My eagerness to mentor has escalated in recent years, as I have really felt the necessity to train the next generation of researchers. Securing research funds is becoming increasingly difficult, and young investigators need guidance at so many levels. In addition, concerns about childhood nutrition and growth affect many different groups of children. My own mentor, Virginia Stallings, established the outstanding, internationally recognized program of nutrition research here at CHOP. It’s so important for this great program to continue because of its broad-reaching impact, and I feel deeply responsible for assuring that this legacy will thrive.
Why would you say the mentor/mentee relationship is important in academia and particularly, at research institutions like CHOP?
Doing research is really, really hard. I mean that's the bottom line; it's extremely difficult and not for everyone. It's incredibly challenging to do well-designed studies, especially in this funding climate and with rising costs. And the breadth of expertise that is needed in clinical research studies can be daunting, making it very difficult to develop into an independent investigator. So, it takes guidance from people who have had a lot of experience in doing it like myself, and other essential ingredients — loads of encouragement, constructive criticism, a sympathetic ear, creating opportunities for professional connections and development, and the phenomenal resources of the Research Institute — for people to be successful.
Do you have any general advice for young scientists and how they might go about finding the right mentor?
First, you have to be passionate about your research topic, so find a mentor who allows you to follow that passion. Secondly, communication is key, and if you find that you have different communication styles, it’s important to talk about how you can best work together. Also, be aware that mentoring takes huge amounts of time. Lastly, a primary mentor probably won’t meet all your needs for personal and professional development during your training and beyond. Seek out others for advice, guidance, critical input, and expertise. CHOP has extraordinary people and resources to help meet your needs.