What makes a super Doctoral supervisor?

August 29, 2017 by Kim Luke

Like most successful relationships, partnerships between doctoral students and their supervisors are a matter of finding the right fit.

Supervisors look for motivated, dedicated and hard-working students who can excel in their field and students look for guidance to do excellent scholarship in supportive and stimulating environments that will position them well for future careers. A good match is important: supervisors and doctoral students work together for at least five years, longer than many people stay in a job.

For some graduate students, Professor Mark Lautens of chemistry, is that model supervisor. Lautens has supervised more than 50 graduate students and his outstanding performance was recently recognized with the School of Graduate Studies JJ Berry Smith Doctoral Supervision Award.

Lautens says he looks for a combination of enthusiasm and determination. Doctoral students must have the ability to keep trying when they hit a roadblock and the aim of making their own creative intellectual contribution to the project. He also thinks it helps when students view you as an advisor rather than the boss.

“They should see you as having their interests in mind and helping them reach their potential, rather than you dictating what they do and how hard they have to work.”

For Tomislav Rovis, joining Lautens’ group offered  a “palpable sense of being in the middle of something that mattered,” doing science at an international scale and competing with the best groups in the world.

“That was somewhat terrifying to a young and very inexperienced researcher but it was also incredibly attractive. I’ve never regretted that decision,” said Rovis.

Now an organic chemistry professor at Columbia University, Rovis was impressed by how much Lautens cared about science and the development of his people. He also appreciated Lautens’ openness and flexibility.

Rovis did not major in chemistry during his undergraduate years which meant his decision to pursue graduate studies in chemistry was an unusual one. After finishing his bachelor’s degree, he worked for a while and travelled around trying to figure out what to do with his life. He eventually decided to go with his passion for organic chemistry.

Since he did not have an undergraduate degree in chemistry, Lautens advised him to take qualifying courses in a probationary semester while applying to graduate school.

“No other program would have looked at me without an undergraduate degree in chemistry or its equivalent,” said Rovis. “I’m grateful that U of T’s chemistry department – and Mark specifically – looked outside the norms to let me pursue it.”

After completing his undergraduate degree, one of Lautens’ current students, Hyung Yoon, vacillated between whether to pursue graduate studies in pharmacy or chemistry. He found that Lautens’ group offered the exact combination he was looking for: the opportunity to explore research directly related to the development of drugs.

“I thought that Mark was the best choice for me since he was very enthusiastic and the work environment was very supportive,” said Yoon. One of his proudest accomplishments working with Lautens so far has been presenting – and receiving a prize for – a poster at an international conference in South Korea.

Drawn to Toronto’s urban lifestyle and to U of T for its reputation in chemistry, Jane Panteleev researched several potential supervisors. She chose Lautens because his work is recognized across industry and academia in North America and Europe, and has the potential to impact industrial processes and advance chemistry’s role in materials and drug discovery.

Now employed at Amgen Inc, a leading biotechnology company in Cambridge, Massachusetts Panteleev works on drug discovery programs in therapeutic areas including inflammation, cardiovascular and kidney disease, and neuroscience.

“I loved the systematic and analytical approach employed in the study of chemistry,” said Panteleev. “I also liked that organic chemistry could be applied in many industries including energy, materials, and pharmaceutical sectors.”

While doctoral students go on to many different careers, their doctoral supervisor can have a tremendous and long-lasting impact.

For Panteleev, learning to be analytical and detail-oriented when conducting research were valuable lessons. She also credits Lautens with showing her how to be an effective project leader and supervisor. “Mark’s style of leadership gave me the opportunity to be more independent and to own my research accomplishments.”

Rovis also took away some lasting lessons in how to work with people, including the doctoral students he now supervises.

“There are people in my field that use their positions as advisor to validate their own insecurities,” he said. “They brook no dissent and no contradictions.

“Mark was never like that. I vividly remember contradicting him as a junior graduate student in a group meeting in front of the entire group and he did not use his intellectual muscle and experience to squash me. In retrospect, I was mostly wrong – but not always! – but that’s not the point. Mark let me voice my opinion without retribution. That’s invaluable and the way I run my own group now.”