When young investigators bring big ideas to Kristy Arbogast, PhD, this year’s winner of the Award for Excellence in Mentoring Research Trainees, she is eager to help them figure out their research vision from the ground up. That’s because Dr. Arbogast knows firsthand the value early career mentors have in shaping how investigators learn to interrogate a scientific problem, analyze the data, and use the results to improve the world.
An internationally recognized bioengineer with a focus on brain injury mechanics, Dr. Arbogast is director of Engineering and Co-Scientific Director at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and co-director of the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies. Her career at CHOP has followed a unique path as a non-clinician at a pediatric hospital who creatively applied her engineering skills to have a tremendous influence on new approaches to improve child safety. Dr. Arbogast’s adaptability and resourcefulness has attracted mentees with a broad range of experience — from undergrads to fellows — and diverse fields of expertise — from emergency medicine to engineering.
“Dr. Arbogast has always welcomed my new ideas and was able to constructively discuss their value with me so that I could invest my time in fruitful projects,” wrote one of Dr. Arbogast’s mentees in a letter nominating her for the award. “She is the type of mentor that would let the mentee develop their own thoughts without imposing her opinions. However, she also works closely with her mentees to make sure they do not lose focus and do not drift away from the main goal.”
We sat down with Dr. Arbogast to hear more about how she cultivates a mentor-mentee relationship based on a balance of supportive encouragement and independence, and why she enjoys being part of their successful futures.
What is your philosophy behind mentorship, and how do you create a supportive environment for early career researchers?
Mentoring is laying out a path that someone can see, but it may not always be according to the exact plan a young student has in mind. There are different ways to achieve what they want, and a mentor stimulates that conversation. The job of a mentor is to ask questions and serve as a mirror, a reflection: “I heard you say you need to do X, but how is what you just told me going to get you to that endpoint?” Their answers sometimes reveal misperceptions about what it takes to accomplish their goals.
When we have our one- on-one meetings, I ask my mentees to come with an agenda for how they want to use the hour. I often tell them, “These are your meetings. If you want to talk about career, if you want to bring data and look at it, if you want to talk about your personal life — whatever you want to use it for — this is my time for you.”
How important is it to keep those lines of communication open, especially when mentors and their mentees have tight schedules?
It is very important for you to realize as a mentor that the hour conversation that’s on your calendar is often because that mentee has something burning in them that they want to talk to you about. If you don’t keep those lines of communication open, you end up losing them as a mentee. They’ll seek it elsewhere. I travel a lot and have a busy schedule, not unlike any other faculty member at CHOP, so I do my best to be flexible. My mentees know that my door is open, both physically and electronically.
Do you have a memorable mentor moment that reminds you why devoting so much of your time and energy to your mentees is worth it?
A prime example is a young woman I mentored who was a PhD student at Drexel, and she graduated about three years ago. She moved on to be the leading expert in child safety for Consumer Reports, and they are part of our Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies. Now our interaction has shifted because she is a research sponsor, and I’m an investigator. I always take pride when I see someone who I have mentored be successful. It’s not unlike parenting; it feels good to know I had something to do with the path she went on, the person she became, and how she conducts herself professionally.
Tell us about some of your influential mentors who shaped your career path.
I have been fortunate, since my undergraduate time, to have an extraordinary mentor, Barry Myers MD, PhD, at Duke University, who I still collaborate with today. I spent a summer between my junior and senior year working in his lab at Duke. He was decidedly influential in my decision to go on and get my PhD and stay in the field. In graduate school, I had another extraordinary mentor, Susan Margulies, PhD, formerly at University of Pennsylvania and now at Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology. My primary advisor left while I has halfway to my PhD, and Dr. Margulies adopted me. We currently have an RO1 together.
And I can’t say enough about the mentorship I had when I came to CHOP in 1997. Part of the reason CHOP is so good at mentoring is because we have extraordinary people here. Flaura Winston and Dennis Durbin were starting the Center for Injury Research and Prevention, and I was one of their first hires as a research scientist out of graduate school.
The other mentor that was most influential at CHOP is Kathy Shaw, who was chief of the Division of Emergency Medicine when I got my faculty position. To move from CHOP research scientist to Penn faculty, some division needed to take me, but I’m different — I’m an engineer; I’m not a clinician. Kathy was a strong advocate for me as a non- clinician in a clinical department. We worked together to understand how metrics of success might look different for me than others in her division.
All of these individuals as mentors treated me as a person who could have a substantial contribution. I never once felt that my voice wasn’t heard or they weren’t interested in what I had to say. That carries over to how I conduct my mentor-mentee relationships. I want to hear from the mentees and welcome what they have to say.
Why does receiving the Award for Excellence in Mentoring Research Trainees hold special meaning for you?
I am really proud that being a non-clinician, I could receive this recognition in a hospital because I think it’s reflective of the diversity of mentees I’ve had. I’m really honored people felt strongly enough to put in the extra work to submit my nomination. It’s meaningful.
What piece of mentoring advice do you want your mentees to always remember?
I encourage my mentees to have a spectrum of mentors; some you meet with weekly, and some you may only speak with once a year, but you value their input. Different mentors can provide different kinds of advice. Some mentors can help with the “here and now” kind of stuff, but it’s nice to have another mentor who is a little removed from your daily responsibilities and can think more broadly because they’re not in the weeds with you. So I think it’s really important to have a portfolio of mentors.