The Mentors | Mar/Apr '17

From the Front Lines

Students and trainees weigh in on what makes a good mentor.

The Players

Ashley Brissette, MD | Cornea and refractive surgery fellow, Weill Cornell Medical College

Brent Kramer | Fourth-year medical student, University of Iowa

Tanner Ferguson | Third-year medical student, University of South Dakota

Alanna Nattis, DO | Cornea and refractive surgery fellow, Ophthalmic Consultants of Long Island

Aaron Ricca, MD | First-year resident, University of Iowa

Eric Rosenberg, DO | First-year resident, New York Medical College

Daniel Terveen, MD | Second-year resident, University of Iowa

Jessica: Mentorship can mean different things to different people, and I think the definition of a mentor differs from generation to generation. If you have been lucky enough to find a mentor, how did you go about finding that person, and what makes him or her a good mentor?

Ashley: I have had numerous mentors throughout my training and my career. I think we seek the guidance we need at each stage of learning and find that in different people. The mentorship needs you have as a resident will likely differ from those you have as a fellow. Attending meetings also provides a form of mentorship. Mentorship doesn’t have to be formal; it is not about approaching a specific person with a particular need but about seeking opportunities and building relationships.

Jessica: That is an important point: Find what you need at each given stage. Do you look for like-minded people? People to emulate?

Ashley: In part, it is a personality match. You meet people who you appreciate and whose way of practice inspires you, and naturally you want to work more closely with them.

Aaron: Personality fit is huge as far as emulating what they want you to be like and where you see yourself in the future. There is a lot of insight required of a good mentor to guide you and help you focus and direct your energy and efforts. Having a well-meshed friendship and working relationship with a mentor is important. I don’t think your mentor always has to be in the field of ophthalmology, either. One of my greatest mentors was an interventional radiologist who taught me a lot about research and about how to be a good clinician.

Jessica: How did you find him as a mentor and bridge that relationship?

Aaron: I found most of my mentors via word of mouth, by asking about people who had interesting projects or who liked working with medical students. Of course, you will meet some people who you don’t necessarily mesh well with, but you will also meet others who you hit it off and develop a good friendship with that blossoms into a good mentor-mentee working relationship as well.

Alanna: I 100% agree. It is helpful to find a mentor who meets your needs along every step of your education. I was lucky in that my dad is an ophthalmologist, so I grew up with an excellent influence. He did not push me to go into ophthalmology, but he has been a wonderful resource along the way. Obviously when he was training, ophthalmology was much different, but having his encouragement throughout my experience has been nice.

Eric: Another important attribute in a mentor is availability. In this field, there are a lot of people who are incredibly busy, such as Alanna’s fellowship director, Eric Donnenfeld, MD; however, he always makes himself available, as will most ophthalmologists who have a keen interest in teaching.

Zaina: In terms of looking for mentorship, what makes a good teacher?

Eric: A good teacher must be able to communicate with his or her students on their level. That is a difficult art, as most of our mentors are so advanced in the field that being able to relate to where they were 5, 10, even 20 years ago and put themselves in our shoes is not easy; but, we certainly appreciate it when they do.

Zaina: It is also important that your mentor truly believes in you and supports your decisions. When I was in medical school, my research mentor, Huda Zoghbi, MD, thought I should be a neurologist and work in the lab; however, when I told her I was interested in ophthalmology, she was very supportive. I learned so much from her in terms of research and critical thinking during those years, which has helped me throughout my career. The best mentors are those who support you no matter what decision you make, even if you are not following the path they suggested for you.

When I was a medical student at Baylor, Liz Yeu, MD, was a cornea fellow there. I felt lucky to have met her and looked up to her, even at that early point in her career. Since then, she has been a great advocate for me. Also, when I was applying for cornea fellowships, I interviewed at Bascom Palmer, and six out of the 10 people who interviewed me were women. Of course, a same-sex mentorship is not a requirement, but it was encouraging for me to see so many successful women in that program.

The most fruitful element of my learning experience has been the people I have met and worked with.

Daniel: Availability is huge. Two of my mentors, Thomas Oetting, MD, and John Berdahl, MD, are famous for responding to emails in seconds. I think the basis for mentorship is that it is relational and not transactional. Like any relationship, mentorship requires investment from both parties. As a mentee, you must give back to the relationship by investing time and approaching your mentor with ideas. Being a give-and-take from both sides allows a mentor-mentee relationship to flourish. Also, the mentors I’ve had have invested in me both professionally and personally; it shows they care about my success in all aspects of my life.

Tanner: I’m also a mentee of Dr. Berdahl. I was connected with him when I was an undergrad. I was always interested in eye care. My dad, an optometrist, used to work with Vance Thompson, MD, in Sioux Falls. I reached out to Dr. Thompson with interest in a research opportunity, and he said, “We should be able to put together a nice little project for you. I will have you work with Dr. Berdahl.” I looked up Dr. Berdahl, saw he trained at Mayo Clinic and Duke, and thought, “Oh crap, this is going to be intimidating.” But from day 1, Dr. Berdahl has always been approachable and down to earth. He has that personality with everyone he meets, and I think that is key to a healthy mentor-mentee relationship; you never feel uncomfortable presenting an idea or asking a question.

Brent: Dr. Berdahl is one of my mentors as well. Before that, I had an awesome mentor outside of medicine. I have zero family connections to medicine in general; I grew up on a hog farm. I knew I wanted to be a doctor, though, so I found myself shadowing physicians. Dr. Berdahl and I are from the same small town of 500 people, so when that is your connection, you go with it. The first time I met Dr. Berdahl, he greeted me with a bright smile, shot his hand out, and was pretty much like, “Hey, my name’s John. I’m the happiest man alive.”

There are many opportunities to meet potential mentors. In regard to who you latch onto, personality is a big deal. In addition to Dr. Berdahl, Dr. Oetting is a mentor of mine. But I also have good mentors outside of medicine. Because medicine eats up a large part of your day, being able to decompress and talk to people outside of medicine is valuable.

Jessica: For mentors, it can sometimes be hard to find that availability, as often we are so pressed for time. What advice can you give us? What can make us better mentors for your generation?

Brent: Be a mentor to someone, not everyone. Don’t spread yourself too thin. It is great to feel like you are listened to, to shoot an email and not have to give it another bump 2 weeks later and be like, “Hey, I’m here.” Dr. Oetting and Dr. Berdahl are great—whether it is a text message, email, or phone call, they are always super approachable.

Jessica: A lot of the programs assign mentors. Is that helpful, or is it better to find your mentors on your own?

Aaron: I disagree with that approach, which my medical school took as well. I think finding your own person who you mesh with, has a similar personality, and cares about wanting to help is more appropriate. You can’t force a mentorship. You should only mentor if you truly want to. Many people are put into a mentor position by happenstance, even though it may not necessarily be a priority—that is not a healthy relationship for anyone.

Zaina: Interesting point. We had a formal mentorship program at Baylor and received similar feedback. First, some of the people that we picked were not necessarily interested in being mentors; on the flip side, sometimes the mentees felt that they were stuck with that mentor for 3 years but didn’t feel any connection. We have since switched our program up a bit. Now, we pick the mentors who have been identified as successful teachers and assign them to residents at the beginning of residency. Then, after a year, the residents can pick whichever mentor they want or stay with the same mentor if they felt they made a connection.

Bill, you mentor a lot of people. Tell us how you go about it.

William B. Trattler, MD: Mentorship should be a win-win for everyone involved. As a mentor, the key is to give your mentees not only advice but also opportunities. For example, when I get asked to write an article, I will find someone who may be looking for the opportunity to get that experience, and I invite him or her to coauthor the piece. I have done that so many times thorough my career. The ability to work together is at the heart of a fruitful and enjoyable mentor-mentee relationship.

Zaina Al-Mohtaseb, MD
  • Assistant Professor of Ophthalmology and Associate Residency Program Director, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas
  •; Twitter @zaina1225
Ashley Brissette, MD
Tanner Ferguson
Brent Kramer
Alanna Nattis, DO
  • Cornea and refractive surgery fellow, Ophthalmic Consultants of Long Island, New York
Aaron Ricca, MD
Eric Rosenberg, DO
Daniel Terveen, MD
Jessica Ciralsky, MD | Section Editor