Profiles in mentoring with Maria Chan
Excellent mentors contribute not only to the development of those they mentor, but also to the success of the entire laboratory. This is why Argonne is committed to fostering a mentoring culture and recognizing employees who have made an exceptional impact as mentors.
Eight employees were honored in 2016 by the Argonne Leadership Institute for their outstanding work as mentors or supervisors. Their dedication to assisting coworkers and postdocs is a great example for those considering the role of mentor. Moreover, the Postdoctoral Mentoring Program is structured to provide each postdoc with a third-party mentor in addition to the research supervisor. Both can have a significant impact on career growth.
How do these outstanding mentors and supervisors view their roles? We asked each of this year’s honorees for some insight into their approach to good mentoring.
Maria Chan received the 2016 Outstanding Postdoctoral Supervisor Award. This award recognizes exceptional work in the supervision of postdoctoral employees and in developing the next generation of scientists and engineers. Chan is an assistant scientist with the Nanoscience and Technology Division and a fellow with the Computation Institute at The University of Chicago, where she is working towards the development of efficient atomistic and first principles computation methodologies, and application of such to renewable energy materials and nanoscale phenomena.
The postdoc who nominated Chan noted that her supportive guidance began during the application process, which cemented the postdoc’s decision to come to Argonne. Her nominator for the award stated that Chan “leads by example, fosters an exciting, congenial, and diverse research environment, and is genuinely interested in the success of her postdocs in both their careers and their personal lives.”
Why is a good supervisor particularly important to postdocs?
The postdoctoral research period is a crucial time for establishing one’s research career, so positive guidance in professional and intellectual development is very important.
Did you have a supervisor who made a positive impact on your career when you were a postdoc? If so, what was that impact?
Yes. My postdoctoral supervisor Jeffrey Greeley (now at Purdue University) was tremendously inspiring and helpful when I was a postdoc. Not only did he intellectually challenge me and teach me a lot of technical knowledge in several research areas, he also showed me how to collaborate effectively which is crucial for today’s scientific research environment. In addition, dozens of scientists and professors gave me their guidance and invaluable advice when I was a postdoc, including my Ph.D. advisor Gerbrand Ceder (now at University of California Berkeley), Mike Thackeray (CSE), Stephen Gray (NST), Chris Wolverton (Northwestern), Millie Dresselhaus (MIT – now deceased), Giulia Galli (IME) and many others.
What is the most important guidance you give to postdocs?
No two postdocs are alike, so the most important guidance will depend on the individual (on this point, my very successful colleague Subramanian Sankaranarayanan also agrees). For some postdocs, it will be learning to communicate effectively. For others, it would be determining what type of work most excites them. For yet others, it would be to practice taking more risks with their ideas and trying different approaches. The list is endless.
What advice would you give to other supervisors of postdocs?
As in performing research itself, I think the most important aspects to effective supervising are to be observant and open-minded — to determine the postdoc’s needs, to listen to different opinions, and to act based on these continuous inputs.
What characteristics make for a good postdoc supervisor?
There are a lot of different ways to be effective as a supervisor also. I think good communication skills and again, open-mindedness helps.