Mentors and Mentees share their experience of the mentoring programme - interview with Dr Alexander Leemans


The OHBM Student and Postdoc SIG runs an international, online mentoring programme. We interviewed a mentor and mentee as part of an ongoing series to gain an insight into what our participants expected and gained from joining. 

We spoke to Alexander Leemans who generously volunteered his time to mentor four trainees from the UK, US, Italy and Switzerland.

The mentor 

Alexander Leemans holds a tenured faculty position as Associate Professor at the Image Sciences Institute (ISI), University Medical Center Utrecht, the Netherlands. He lectures an introductory course in image processing, which is part of the M.Sc. programme Medical Imaging of the Graduate School of Life Sciences, Utrecht University. His current research interests include modelling, processing, visualizing and analyzing diffusion MRI data for investigating microstructural and architectural tissue organization. He heads the PROVIDI Lab and is the developer of ExploreDTI, which is a graphical toolbox for investigating diffusion MRI data.

Alexander, you generously volunteered your time to mentor a number of trainees. Why do you think mentoring is important in academia?

Having access to a trusted and experienced advisor can be very helpful to navigate the complex landscape of academia. Mentors can help you tackle challenges that you may encounter and they can guide you throughout your career.

What were you hoping to gain from joining the mentoring programme?

I mainly joined the mentoring programme to simply help those that want to have more guidance during their academic career. At the same time, I hope I can still learn from the mentees as well. And getting to know more people to hang out with during OHBM socials is always a bonus ;-)!

What has been your experience of the mentoring programme so far? Have you seen any benefits?

I have really enjoyed the meetings and chats with the mentees so far – helping them addressing their concerns makes me kind of feel like Mr. Wolf from Pulp Fiction (“I solve problems”). While I have received positive feedback from my mentees about some of my general advice, I am not sure whether they already have benefited concretely from me. Then again, learning how to party like a Belgian and seeing its effect on their career can take a while…

Do you have any advice for trainees navigating a career in neuroimaging?

The continuously changing scientific landscape makes it difficult to define a single path towards a successful academic career. In other words, whatever strategy that may have worked to become a successful scientist in the past, may not be applicable now. Also, a specific work approach or personal development style that suits one person may not be the best option for someone else due to differences in personality traits.

Perhaps one useful (albeit obvious) pointer for those starting their academic journey: find the science topic or project that really excites you. With your job being fun now, you will actually gain energy, instead of feeling exhausted at the end of the day. The relentless passion for your work (read “hobby”) will ultimately result in the development of a strong skill set and a thorough understanding of whatever you are investigating. Your acquired scientific knowledge will also be attractive to others and so it will likely generate valuable collaborations which, in turn, will spark further opportunities… The upward spiral is born!

The mentor and mentee

Andrew Beaudin is an integrative physiologist working with Dr. Eric Smith at the University of Calgary (Calgary, AB, Canada) on quantifying cerebral blood flow responses to hypercapnia (elevated carbon dioxide) using MRI and its relationship with cognitive function. Andrew started his integrative physiology training at Simon Fraser University where his M.Sc. investigated the adaptation of human ventilation with exposure to a hot environment and its relationship to concurrent changes in body temperature, skin blood flow and sweating. For his Ph.D. Andrew continued his integrative physiology training by studying the impact of intermittent hypoxia exposure on the cerebral blood flow (assessed using transcranial Doppler ultrasound), cardiovascular, and ventilatory responses to hypoxia (low oxygen) and hypercapnia in healthy humans and patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Through his doctoral studies, Andrew developed a strong interest in better understanding how brain physiology is altered in health and disease. Away from the lab Andrew enjoys road cycling, mountain biking, hiking, downhill skiing and spending time with his family.

Andrew, do you think mentoring is important in academia – have you benefitted from mentoring in your own career?

Yes, I think mentoring is extremely important in academia. For myself, in addition to my direct MSc and PhD supervisors, the guidance, perspective and knowledge shared with me by senior academics and colleagues has been immeasurable for the progression of my career. Unfortunately, for me these relationships were not facilitated through formal mentorship programs.  Rather, at the time I considered these individuals as colleagues and friends.  It was not until later in training that I realized how lucky I was to have such great mentors. If it were not for the guidance and help from these caring mentors I had throughout my academic training, I would have given up on my aspirations of a research career long ago.

You were among some of the many scientists who joined the mentoring programme to provide mentorship to trainees, but also looking to find mentorship yourself. What motivated you to join as both mentor and mentee? I joined the program as a mentor to share my academic experiences with younger scientists still undergoing their formal training. My hope is that I may help individuals avoid pitfalls I fell into by providing personal insights and perspectives based upon past experiences in academia. I also think it is important that trainees have people outside their immediate lab, department and even institute who they turn to for advice and guidance.  My mentors allowed me to do this and it has kept me in academia and excited for a research career.

As I am relatively new to neuroimaging, I also joined the mentoring program as a mentee to meet an individual on which to rely on for guidance, recommendations and career advice in relation to pursuing a career in neuroimaging.

What has been your experience of the mentoring program so far? Have you seen any benefits?

Being given the opportunity to act as both a mentor and a mentee by the OHBM Student and Postdoc SIG has been very rewarding. As a mentor, my experience has been great. The mentees I was paired with were proactive in initiating contact, enthusiastic, respectful and appreciative of my time. It has been amazing to see how open these individuals have been to discussing their challenges and successes with someone outside their direct supervisors, lab mates and colleagues.

As a mentee, my experience has also been good. My mentor was receptive to talking when I first reached out. They were keen to share stories of their journey through academia and offer advice on improving my CV as well as ways to enhance the opportunities for a neuroimaging career given my specific skill set. Though we have only talked once thus far, knowing that this individual is available to talk with when needed is very appreciated.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in navigating a career in neuroimaging?

I think the biggest challenge for a neuroimaging career is navigating the numerous career paths available to someone entering the neuroimaging field. Neuroimaging comprises of many diverse, continuously evolving methodologies and analyses techniques capable of helping to answer an even more diverse set of research questions that it can be overwhelming to see how you may find a career within the field.

Do you have any advice for trainees navigating a career in neuroimaging?

Nobody’s experience is the same in academia. Search out mentors (plural) through opportunities such as the OHBM Student and Postdoc SIG mentorship program. Pursue opportunities to connect with individuals at various levels of their training and/or career.  Finally, rely on the mentors you decide upon. They will have agreed to be your mentor for a reason. Trust that they have your best interest at heart and will do their best to help guide you to the neuroimaging career you envision.  Work hard, apply yourself and realize that you are not alone on your journey to a successful neuroimaging career.

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