Brushes with greatness: the importance of mentorship

by Sarah Luna

I am very fortunate to be part of the nutrition department at Cornell. The faculty are the rockstars of the nutrition world. My instructors casually reference papers and books that they’ve authored in lecture.  They help shape nutrition policy here and across the globe.

I would love to know how in the world they thought I was capable of joining them.  Really, how did I get here?

Today offered yet another example of the opportunities Cornell presents. The department holds a Field of Nutrition Seminar each week where faculty talk about current topics, students present their dissertation seminars, and guest faculty share their outside expertise. This week we hosted Dr. Christos Mantzoros, an endocrinologist and professor at Harvard. Since I am becoming increasingly interested in adipose tissue as an active endocrine organ, I opted to attend the lunch set up for graduate students to meet with him.

He amazed me.

There were about 10 of us around the table. We each introduced ourselves and our research interests. He listened attentively and then proceeded to tell us stories that were prompted by our words–engaging with us in a way that was neither awkward nor uncomfortable.

Since most of us were in the developing part of our dissertations, he focused his narrative on how to choose a PhD project. Here were his tips:

  • find something close to your heart
  • fail big or make it big (choose something career-defining)
  • choose something that is completely black box and discover it…or…
  • jump on the bandwagon of a newly discovered something…or…
  • study something in a new environment
  • don’t laugh at (seemingly) stupid ideas

Sometimes we don’t end up where we want to. When I answered that I didn’t know yet where I would do my study, he shared the story of Dr. Ananda Prasad. When Dr. Prasad was finished with his MD/PhD, he could not stay in the US nor return to India. His mentor found a place for him to work in Iran at a new hospital. The local doctors at first were reluctant to listen to this “American” doctor, so they brought him a 21 year old man with a disease and asked Dr. Prasad to diagnose it. The man had the symptoms of anemia but was not iron deficient. Dr. Prasad said that this was a completely new case, and the local doctors laughed and showed him a hospital full of people with the disease. Dr. Prasad then analyzed their blood and ended up describing zinc deficiency for the first time. He went on to create and implement zinc supplementation which increased the height, weight, and development of the deficient men and women. His work was revolutionary in highlighting the necessity of zinc in the human diet.

So without even knowing me, Dr. Mantzoros was able to look through my 30 second introduction and find something meaningful to tell me. That story was incredibly inspiring because I have no idea where I’ll end up. This is what good mentors do. They inspire us despite the challenges.

So yeah, brushes with greatness…just another day at Cornell.