The Research Trainee Advisory Committee at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute has named Hakon Hakonarson, MD, PhD, the inaugural winner of its Award for Excellence in Mentoring Research Trainees. The award recognizes faculty who effectively guide and monitor advanced training and professional development of research trainees at CHOP in an ongoing partnership sustained by mutual respect.
Scientists are routinely judged on their impact on discovery via grant funding and journal publications (and in this realm, Dr. Hakonarson is also an exceptionally high achiever). They are far less frequently lauded for their impact on guiding the careers of the next generation of scientists — but when they perform well in this role, research mentors can dramatically multiply their impact on science for years to come. This much is clear from the example of Dr. Hakonarson, who is the director of the Center for Applied Genomics (CAG) at CHOP and a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Hakon has set me up to succeed in every possible way, freely giving his time, energy, and financial support,” said Elizabeth Bhoj, MD, PhD, a molecular genetics fellow at CHOP who nominated Dr. Hakonarson with support from numerous other current and former trainees. “He has made it clear that he invests all these things in me as a person, not as a data-generating cog within the laboratory, and encourages me to make choices that benefit my future, not just the future of the lab.”
Dr. Bhoj’s story backs up her claims. When she began her research fellowship in CAG, she was quickly impressed with Dr. Hakonarson’s unfailing support for her career development. He supported her attendance of an average of five national and international conferences per year. When CAG was awarded a major multicenter grant from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Hakonarson arranged for Dr. Bhoj to attend the project’s national working group and deliberately introduced her to many major leaders in the field. He nominated her for CHOP’s Distinguished Research Trainee Award in 2015 — an honor she won, along with two others of Dr. Hakonarson’s trainees in the past two years. And he encouraged and fully supported her pursuit of a Master’s of Translational Research at Penn, even though the classes took time away from her research in CAG.
But when Dr. Bhoj considered making a risky shift in her training plans, Dr. Hakonarson came through with more generous support than she could have imagined. After her first year of training as a physician fellow in Dr. Hakonarson’s lab, Dr. Bhoj realized that a 12-month molecular genetics fellowship would be a great benefit for her career. She discussed her goals and rationale with her mentor, describing the numerous practical drawbacks of the plan, and answering his thoughtful questions.
“He responded that it sounded like a good move for my career and he’d be happy to completely fund me for the year,” Dr. Bhoj said. “I was shocked and overwhelmed — instead of working in his lab for two years with outside support as our original plan, he not only supported my plan to take a break from the lab for a year, but completely funded that time away.”
The decision came without any agreement that Dr. Bhoj would return to CAG at the end of the year, and without expectation of repayment. For Dr. Hakonarson, doing the best thing for his trainee’s career superseded any other consideration.
“That night, I was able to go home and throw out the budgets I had made where our family of four was trying to live off of my husband’s fellow salary and our savings, which had been my last option after failing to find other salary funding for the year,” Dr. Bhoj said.
When Dr. Bhoj asked several fellow trainees who she knew personally to write letters of support for the nomination for this award, word quickly spread through the community of Dr. Hakonarson’s current and former postdoctoral fellows, physician fellows, and CHOP-based graduate students. Dozens came forward to request the opportunity to write letters of support.
Dr. Bhoj and other trainees also lauded Dr. Hakonarson’s support in the form of career guidance for a variety of career paths in academia and industry, extreme responsiveness and accessibility in communication, and guidance in the responsible conduct of research.
“It is clear that like many researchers at CHOP, Hakon has the scientific acumen and clinical experience to be an effective mentor,” Dr. Bhoj said. “What truly sets him apart is the leveraging of this expertise with his absolute dedication to mentorship, which he clearly demonstrates by putting in the time and effort day after day to holistically guide each of his trainees.”
For Dr. Hakonarson, that effort is inspired by a deep appreciation for the excellence of his trainees.
“I am highly honored to receive this award and grateful for the superb dedication, scientific skills, and support for our shared discoveries that my trainees bring to the lab each day,” Dr. Hakonarson said. “Elizabeth is an outstanding representative example of the many research trainees I have been proud to guide as they work toward the successes they so richly deserve.
“As an individual we can have impact, but if you can interest and train10 people with a scientific idea and then they train 10 people, et cetera, the scientific impact becomes transformative, which is why mentoring our trainees is so important,” he said.