The Power of Mentorship

December 12, 2022

Behind many a celebrated career or collaboration is a strong mentor-mentee relationship. The School’s mentors help mentees identify goals and achieve them; offer advice on how to excel as a teacher and researcher; open opportunities for collaboration and provide entrée to a network of their peers; and guide them on the byways of academia. Most of all, they give emotional support and serve as a sounding board.

Scientific advancement and instructional excellence is sustained through generations of mentor-mentee relationships. I. Bernard Weinstein, MD, who led the Environmental Health Sciences Department from 1978 to 1990, was a valued mentor to Frederica Perera, MPH ’76, DrPH ’82, PhD ’12; Regina Santella, PhD; and Paul Brandt-Rauf, ScD ’74, MD ’79, MPH ’90, DrPH ’87. Brandt-Rauf went on to also chair the department, and Perera, Santella, and Weinstein were instrumental in developing the field of molecular epidemiology. In turn, Perera, who founded the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH), has mentored several faculty, including Julie Herbstman, MSc, PhD, and Andrew Rundle, MPH ’94, DrPH ’00, both of whom have furthered her work on the impact of early-life environmental exposures on children. “I learned so much from being around Ricky [Perera] and observing her decision-making process and gradually taking on new responsibilities,” says Herbstman, the director of CCCEH, who is shown at left with Perera (above). 

The learning goes both ways. Marianthi-Anna Kioumourtzoglou, MSPH, ScD, recipient of the 2022 Dean’s Excellence in Mentoring Award, is continually amazed by her postdoctoral mentees. “I’m here because I get the opportunity to work with students and learn with them every day,” she says.

Harold W. Brown, MD, DrPH, the School’s dean from 1950 to 1955, organized study trips to Suriname for students in the 1950s. One of the students, John H. Bryant, MD ’53, went on to become a leading authority on international health systems and parasitology. In 1971, he stepped into the position once held by his mentor, becoming the School’s fifth dean.

In 2013, Jasmine McDonald, PhD,then a postdoc researcher, approached Mary Beth Terry, PhD, ’99, a cancer researcher, with a bold idea to explore the link between early-life infections and pubertal timing in girls. Though the idea was outside Terry’s expertise, McDonald recalls, “Her answer was, ‘Tell me more.’ She guided me on how to answer my research question and how to get my first grant, which eventually led me to a faculty position.” Says Terry: “I love to work with people who have different scientific disciplines. As the slogan goes, ‘Great minds think differently.’”

Merlin Chowkwanyun, MPH, PhD, first learned about public health as an undergraduate history major at Columbia through a class taught by Samuel Roberts, PhD, professor of History and Sociomedical Sciences, in 2003. Less than a decade later, Chowkwanyun joined his mentor as a member of the history faculty in Sociomedical Sciences. Roberts, who is Black, helped Chowkwanyun, who is Asian American, feel less alone in a historically monochrome field. Roberts adds, “One of the fruits of being a mentor is developing future colleagues. It’s not a one-way street.”

Even though Roberts was already a seasoned professor when, in 2014, he was named policy director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies, he reached out to retired Columbia Mailman School professor Andrew Davidson, PhD, MBA, for advice. “I haven’t had a single conversation with him where I didn’t walk away having learned something. … Very few of us are no longer in need of mentorship.”

Tim Paul is editorial director in the Columbia Mailman School Office of Communications.