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Mentorship provides students with insight

By Eleni Kanavas

Patti Benveniste at work in one of our labs

Many students interested in science do not get the opportunity to work in a research lab until they are well into their undergraduate studies. Research personnel in the biology lab of Dr. Juan Carlos Zúñiga-Pflücker, interim director of molecular and cellular biology at Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI), however, are giving earlier-stage students in high school and university hands-on experience to explore their scientific interests.

Dr. Patricia Benveniste is a research associate in Zúñiga-Pflücker's lab who has more than 10 years' experience mentoring students. Born in Paris, France, Benveniste attended medical school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She completed a masters in autoimmune thyroid diseases and a PhD in bone marrow T cell differentiation at the University of Toronto. She then did postdoctoral studies at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in T cell development.

Here, she explains how much she enjoys being a mentor and providing students with an opportunity to learn and develop research skills in the lab.

What inspired you to become a mentor?

When I was a student, this trend in mentorship programs was not available. It's nice to teach young people who might be interested in following research and to show them what we do. It gives students exposure to different labs before they make their career decision. 

Why is mentoring important in research?

We have an array of interests within the lab, and we try to pair students with a researcher who is most linked to the student's interest. I think it's very important for students to experience what it's like working in the lab before deciding if they want a science career or a more clinical one, like being a doctor. Students often have doubts about their career choice, and offering them the possibility of testing options is important. 

How does mentoring promote the sharing of ideas?

We discuss the progress of our research in the lab quite a bit, especially at the beginning when I introduce the topic that the student will be working on with me. After they get more familiar with the theme and they've read some of the literature, then there is a lot more discussion and questions.  

Are there challenges that come along the way?

The challenges are different with every student. For example, you may get a student who has experience in biochemistry, but this is a biology lab and we grow things. For a person who has never dealt with that, it's ground zero and we have to start from scratch. Students have to digest what they learn in a relatively short time and must be proficient with the handling of the material. For the mentor, the challenge is to make sure the student understands the reason for doing the experiment and how best he or she can present their work at the end of the term.

What do you like best about mentoring?

The interaction with the new generation. Students enliven the lab and are very enthusiastic, and sometimes we lose some of that enthusiasm in growing up. I really enjoy watching students develop their skills and grow in their learning. Whether they decide to pursue science later on is irrelevant, but at least they are enjoying what they are doing and learning. That's what I like the most.

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