### The benefits of being a mentor in academia

 Yoda gets a nice benefit from his mentee.
Today's guest post is by Wen-fai Fong, a graduate student in the Harvard Astronomy Department. Wen-fai will be graduating with her PhD this coming Spring and she studies the galactic environments of gamma ray bursts (GRBs). Since arriving at Harvard, I have been very impressed with Wen-fai's leadership and initiative in establishing mentoring within the astronomy department. Her efforts include the establishment of a peer mentoring program similar to the program I benefitted from at Berkeley, and a new faculty-peer mentoring program. The programs were recently recognized and funded by Harvard University through a GSC grant. Given her experience over the years with mentoring, both as a mentor and mentee, I asked her to share her thoughts on this blog.

Lying on my couch on Thanksgiving Eve, nearly comatose from uncomfortable amounts of turkey sitting in my stomach, I flipped on the TV. To my delight, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was playing. A few commercial breaks later and I was wide awake, weeping during the scene in which Yoda dies. This got me thinking: Yoda was such a fantastic mentor to Luke Skywalker, and Luke obviously went on to do great things. But what the heck did Yoda get out of it? I let these thoughts dangle in my mind as I dabbed my eyes, changed the channel and told myself to get a grip!

Many articles I’ve read concentrate on the benefits of being mentored. Indeed, these studies have contributed to the ubiquity of mentoring programs in working environments. From business schools to medical schools1, from small start-ups to tech moguls like Google... even the U.S. military2 recognizes the impact of mentoring on the mentees. But why should people want to be mentors, especially in the stereotypically emotionless world of science and academia?

To help me understand Yoda’s perspective, I recently asked the Harvard Astronomy graduate student mentors to write about their experiences, and their responses gave me the inspiration I needed to write this post. In six key points, here are the (unexpected) benefits of being a mentor:

1) It’s a chance to stay involved with the department. As you progress through graduate school and become increasingly immersed in your own research group, it can be difficult to remain connected with the department at a broader level. This program has given me a way to stay involved with the department at a relatively low cost of my own time.

 By helping your mentee navigate the many emotions of graduate school, you might find yourself working through some emotions of your own.
2) It will help you develop some of those rusty interpersonal skills. Let’s be honest - we don’t go into scientific careers because of our emotional prowess. Thus, building a trusting relationship with your mentee may be challenging. One mentor describes his own experience: “Establishing a relationship where we share important or difficult problems and experiences has been harder than I expected.   I've taken steps towards that by trying to be more open about the challenges I'm facing in my own work and life, hoping my mentee will do the same.” Being a mentor is a chance to openly reflect on times when you’ve struggled without being judged.

3) You just might learn to take a dose of your own medicine. This concept is beautifully summed up in a quote from a student mentor: There are all of these things that I’ve struggled with throughout grad school, about which I did a lot of ignoring advice that I got from other people. But when you’re suddenly faced with giving advice that you know is good to someone else, you kind of have to confront the fact that you might not be following it yourself.”  Ah, this is so interesting and so true; how often it is that we give advice but don’t take it ourselves.

 A mentor can help to untangle a mentee's thoughts.
4) The rewards can be profound. “I was so proud of seeing my mentee grow and develop through her first year of grad school. It felt really good to see her passing milestones.” Just like any act of charity, it can brighten your day, too.

5) Understanding the various ways in which students handle graduate school will make you a more effective research advisor. Prior to becoming a mentor, the only data point I had on how students truly cope with graduate school was myself. First-time advisors who have never mentored students before will be in the exact same boat. However, advisors who have previously mentored students will be at an advantage because they will better understand how others confront the challenges of graduate school. One mentor writes: I suddenly realized that I couldn't simply project my own experiences onto what his grad school experience would be like.”

6) You have the power to shape the field, one mentee at a time. The success of relatively small fields like Astronomy relies on the retention of a healthy number of highly motivated and passionate scientists. It is therefore crucial to nurture the few who choose to do this with their lives, and to keep their enthusiasm alive which they in turn will be able to project to their students. As a mentor, you have the potential to influence the future of the field by sharing your knowledge and vision with your mentees.

When I started this program, I admittedly did so for the mentees. Never did I dream that this would impact the mentors as much as it has. The number one comment I get from people in the department regarding this program is, “Thank you for starting this.” Wait, what? No, no, no. Thank you for teaching me so much. Maybe this is what Yoda thought as he lay there dying in that smelly swamp. I could not be more proud to be part of a department that supports mentoring, and I can’t wait to see what more there is to learn in the coming years.

Big hugs and thanks to: Anjali Tripathi (the current co-coordinator of the Mentoring Program), fellow graduate students who took the time to write about their mentoring experiences, and Ms. Peg Herlihy, department administrator and the most extraordinary cheerleader of Harvard Astrograds.

References
1 For a famous article (within the medical field) on communication between mentors and mentees, see here: “Love Letters: An Anthology of Constructive Relationship Advice Shared Between Junior Mentees and Their Mentors”
2 For a review, see here: “Formal Mentoring in the U.S. Military: Research Evidence, Lingering Questions, and Recommendations”

### On the Height of J.J. Barea

Dallas Mavericks point guard J.J. Barea standing between two very tall people (from: Picassa user photoasisphoto).

Congrats to the Dallas Mavericks, who beat the Miami Heat tonight in game six to win the NBA championship.

Okay, with that out of the way, just how tall is the busy-footed Maverick point guard J.J. Barea? He's listed as 6-foot on NBA.com, but no one, not even the sports casters, believes that he can possibly be that tall. He looks like a super-fast Hobbit out there. But could that just be relative scaling, with him standing next to a bunch of extremely tall people? People on Yahoo! Answers think so---I know because I've been Google searching "J.J. Barea Height" for the past 15 minutes.

So I decided to find a photo and settle the issue once and for all.

I then used the basketball as my metric. Wikipedia states that an NBA basketball is 29.5 inches in circumfe…

### Finding Blissful Clarity by Tuning Out

It's been a minute since I've posted here. My last post was back in April, so it has actually been something like 193,000 minutes, but I like how the kids say "it's been a minute," so I'll stick with that.
As I've said before, I use this space to work out the truths in my life. Writing is a valuable way of taking the non-linear jumble of thoughts in my head and linearizing them by putting them down on the page. In short, writing helps me figure things out. However, logical thinking is not the only way of knowing the world. Another way is to recognize, listen to, and trust one's emotions. Yes, emotions are important for figuring things out.
Back in April, when I last posted here, my emotions were largely characterized by fear, sadness, anger, frustration, confusion and despair. I say largely, because this is what I was feeling on large scales; the world outside of my immediate influence. On smaller scales, where my wife, children and friends reside, I…

### The Force is strong with this one...

Last night we were reviewing multiplication tables with Owen. The family fired off doublets of numbers and Owen confidently multiplied away. In the middle of the review Owen stopped and said, "I noticed something. 2 times 2 is 4. If you subtract 1 it's 3. That's equal to taking 2 and adding 1, and then taking 2 and subtracting 1, and multiplying. So 1 times 3 is 2 times 2 minus 1."

I have to admit, that I didn't quite get it at first. I asked him to repeat with another number and he did with six: "6 times 6 is 36. 36 minus 1 is 35. That's the same as 6-1 times 6+1, which is 35."

Ummmmm....wait. Huh? Lemme see...oh. OH! WOW! Owen figured out

x^2 - 1 = (x - 1) (x +1)

So $6 \times 8 = 7 \times 7 - 1 = (7-1) (7+1) = 48$. That's actually pretty handy!

You can see it in the image above. Look at the elements perpendicular to the diagonal. There's 48 bracketing 49, 35 bracketing 36, etc... After a bit more thought we…