On mentoring early career researchers in times of Team Based Science - an interview with Alejandro Arias Vásquez, PhD

edited by Ayaka Ando, Chiara Caldinelli & Meena M. Makary

Alejandro Arias Vásquez was born in Colombia, Bogota. During his PhD at the Erasmus University Medical Centre, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, he investigated the pathophysiology and genetic risks of Alzheimer's disease. Today, he is working at Radboud University, Nijmegen, researching the neuropsychological traits associated with the genetic and environmental risks of neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and autism.

Alejandro is strongly oriented at consortia-based research (a.k.a. Team Based Science), and involved in several big international projects such as the ENIGMA, MiND, CoCA and AGGRESSOTYPE consortia . Since 2013, he set-up a one-of-a-kind collaboration of psychiatry, brain imaging, behavior, genetics and microbiology studies to investigate, for the first time, the relationship between gut bacteria (the microbiome) and behaviour in humans. This pioneering work has received support from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) through a Food & Cognition personal grant (B3: brain, bacteria & behavior) and the EU-H2020 program through the Eat2beNICE project. Today, we present an interview with Alejandro in which he introduces his views on mentoring and supervising his students.

Alejandro, how do you approach supervision in your lab? What do you require from your students?

First of all, I have three golden rules in my lab:

  1. This is your job, not mine; I am responsible for you but not for your work.

  2. If you do not know, do not guess - just ask.

  3. Everybody makes mistakes.

I adhere to these rules as well.

I also believe that the best way of learning is through experience. Your first paper is probably not going to be your best-ever-paper, therefore you need to develop reasonable expectations. You also need to practice research and academic writing: you need to accept that the first draft of a manuscript is going to get rewritten, and then rewritten, and rewritten again. I remember that the process of polishing my first paper was a nightmare, and I fully sympathize with my students! Yet, I will not let my students fire off a poor quality manuscript, so they need to be prepared for a long, iterative development process.

I believe that doing good science is always the most important aspect of academic work. At the same time, I am not micromanaging my students’ schedule, and I do not check how many hours they spend in the laboratory (I chose to believe that they follow the rules).

I also let my students lead their projects themselves. They are specialists in some areas where I am not an expert, I accept this and I let them lead. The key is to maximize the output, so we attempt to reach a synergy between their expertise and my expertise. I give them the ability to have fun with the project, and to try their own solutions. At the same time, I believe that agreeing with me is not the point - agreeing with science is. Therefore, even though I trust, I aim to prevent the human factor from negatively influencing results and I often let colleagues check my students’ work.

Also, I believe that the sooner you start writing grants, the bigger the chances for your long-term success in academia. Of course, the need for grant writing depends on whether you want to stay in science or not. If you are planning to stay and pursue an academic career, you will need to follow someone else’s path as a postdoc. In order to gain independence, you will need to take a detour from this previously set path (by your boss/supervisor) and create your own path by obtaining personal grants as soon as possible. Therefore, I encourage my students to try grant writing early on.

Actually, one should try to obtain personal grants, but also collaborate on larger projects as soon as you can. Personal grants are very competitive, therefore, you can also become more competitive and strengthen your CV joining bigger (consortium-based) projects as a contributor (and vice versa of course: you can get a better chance of getting on big projects by obtaining personal grants). I am also applying this strategy to my own career development: in order to successfully apply for the VICI grant (the second highest personal grant awarded in the Netherlands), I am currently loading my CV with consortium grants (and the papers coming out from them). In general, grant agencies expect you to be a combination of Batman and Superman, and they always want more than you can deliver, so you need to maximize your chances by trying on many different fronts at a time.

Do you have an individual approach to every student?

Not really. The inclusion criteria (not the requirements of the project of course) and the requirements for obtaining a PhD, are the same for everyone in the Netherlands, therefore I treat my students equally. The main requirement is to do good enough science in a good enough amount.

I am also not tailoring the PhD for every student; I rather give them tools so that they can discover by themselves what type of researcher they want to become. For this reason, I try to send students to multiple conferences - at least one European and one non-European meeting (per year if possible). I also tend to send my students to separate conferences so that they can maximally distribute our content overseas and promote each other’s work.

How often do you see your students?

We are a meeting-based lab and I prefer to communicate through lab meetings managed by lab members, rather than through personal meetings. I have regular, weekly meetings with the most junior student in my lab, as this person needs more help from me (this will certainly change as time goes by), and with a few other lab members who are just launching their projects and need my input. My students can schedule extra meetings with me when there is something particular to discuss.

What is the most common mistake that your students do?

Thinking that non-significant p-values are the end of the world [laugh]. I believe in full disclosure; negative results are equally important as positive results. Also, students often bet too much on one paper only because they spend time and energy on it. They need to accept that not everything is going their way.

In your lab, papers are written by groups of students so that the work is always chopped into pieces, distributed between authors and managed by the first author. This is not a typical way of managing PhD work as in most labs, the first author has to take a responsibility for most of the work and the rest of the team supervises the student. Where did this idea come from?

In my lab we write papers in “the normal way” also (one student, one paper). In big consortia, what you describe is a very typical way of working. I actually learned this approach from other senior scientists when writing consortium grants. In a big grant proposal, you are responsible for your part of the job, and you need to follow the common agreements.

During my own PhD, I followed a quite “old school approach” in a sense that every student had their own somewhat independent project. This taught me independence but it was (in my opinion) less efficient in general. I want my students to learn to work independently as well as in a collaboration setting (with other scientists) and have a different learning experiences.

In such a scheme, the success of the whole team strongly depends on self-discipline and flexibility of all the members. How do you deal with human factor and associated delays then? What would you do if a given member of the project is not delivering on what they promised, in the proposed time frame?

It is key to always ask the student to set their own deadlines for their chunk of work (within reason). You shift the responsibility to them with the goal the people start to feel responsible to adhere to their own deadlines. Then, if the deadline comes and there is silence on the line, you can ask about the progress. Email is not always the right approach; calling on the phone or a personal visit works way better. Also, in order to work with other people, you need to develop cognitive flexibility: things change all the time, and results are most often not the way you want them.

Please tell us more about this consortium culture.

Consortia are big, international projects spanning across multiple groups in multiple countries. This tradition started in physics, it was adopted in genetics (where is also very successful), and is being adopted in other fields of science like neuroimaging.

How do you define your role in the consortia you are participating in?

Your role can change depending on the scientific aim of each consortium. The common denominator (for me) is to be generous and flexible. Essentially, you need to be able to fulfill your role as an independent scientist and will deliver your own results in collaboration with your consortium colleagues.

So, how is it possible that in large consortia with hundreds of authors on every paper, people are not fighting for positions?

In a good consortium, the working atmosphere is excellent. With good planning and management, it is possible to develop synergy so that people cooperate and not compete. Consortia are really more about the people than the papers.

About authorship, it is a matter of dividing tasks fairly: whoever comes up with a research idea, is free to go on and become the lead researcher on the proposed research topic. Also, you need to accept that sometimes, you need to give away a little bit of your personal impact in exchange for the impact of the whole project. Yes, people can fight for authorship at times. In such cases, you need to ask yourself a question though: what is more important for you, one paper or a long-lasting, healthy collaboration? (You’d be surprised with the variability in the answers).

What was the especially hard part of the research career for you?

Achieving a work-life balance. I avoid working on weekends or evenings, and I prefer to spend this time with my family. For a long time, I carried a deep sense of guilt about this as I saw many of my (successful) colleagues working very hard until midnight and at least one day in the weekend. Now I know that there is nothing to feel guilty for: the key is to focus on the things you can influence around you, and, when you go to work, then commit yourself to work for real rather than chit chat, sit on social media and make excursions to the coffee machine throughout the day. When the work time is over (you determine this, of course, is not about the 9-5 scheme), shut the door and focus on the other important and relevant aspects of your life.

I also try to teach this to my students: do not work extra hours (if you don’t have to) because your results will not get (necessarily) any better, try to plan better! If I find out that someone (in my lab) spends weekends working on a regular basis, I strongly advise them to stop. Also, I understand the meaning of ‘extenuating circumstances‘. I am always understanding personal circumstances and I try to work around the problem together with the student.

And what is your view on the work-related stress?

Let me put it this way: the fact that you are stressed, does not mean that you are not happy or satisfied. Stress is a natural part of doing something that is important for you, so you need to learn how to live with it rather than fight with it.

Also, you need to take responsibilities that go along with your position. When you become a senior researcher, you need to take decisions about hiring people and worry about their salaries. I am comfortable with this part of the stress though, because the more experience I have, the better decisions I make. I think I am good at betting on people.

Do you track what alumni do?

Yes, for most part. I do not actively keep in touch with them but I am informed. Two of my alumni are still working with me and most of my alumni stayed in science.

Also, I sometimes try to keep students with me for as long as possible. I always feel a bit sad when someone decides to go on with their research career and move somewhere else; this always gives me a little feeling of loss.

Who were your personal mentors?

I had quite a few mentors. My first mentor was my undergrad biology teacher who taught me about genetics. When I came to the Netherlands, I got a PhD supervisor who was a challenging mentor for me: she was ten levels ahead of me and it was always hard to reach her level during a conversation. She taught me a lot of things though. My daily PhD supervisor was also very helpful and eventually became a friend of mine. When I came to Nijmegen, Prof. Barbara Franke became an inspiration to me. She is one of the strongest persons I know, and always keeps a positive look at things. I also learn a lot  from my students on a daily basis - you must be confident about your own expertise but that does not mean that your views cannot be challenged.

Thank you for the interview!

Natalia Bielczyk