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Why every researcher needs a trusted mentor

Innovative new grant program links young researchers to veteran advisors.

Dr. Robert Beanlands began his career in cardiology and nuclear medicine with a job offer in hand. There was just one problem. The institution that had recruited him didn’t actually have the equipment he needed. It was on order but no one knew how to use it.

In need of some fast on-the-job training, he cold-called Dr. Ernest Fallen, a senior researcher in the field, and popped the question: Would you be my mentor?  

“The gain was mostly on my side,” Dr. Beanlands says, reflecting back on the help Dr. Fallen gave him in learning to use the equipment. “But he still offered to give up his time to help me because he felt it was important to help investigators in Canada.” 

Today, Dr. Beanlands is an international leader in cardiovascular nuclear imaging, a highly specialized field that uses imaging to understand heart disease better, detect it earlier and identify the best ways to treat it. He’s also the founding director of the University of Ottawa Heart Institute’s National Cardiac PET Centre, the only PET (positron emission tomography) facility in Canada dedicated to cardiovascular disease. 

In June 2015, he became one of 8 mentors to join the inaugural Emerging Research Leaders Initiative (ERLI), a new grant program led by the Heart and Stroke Foundation that matches researchers at the early stage of their career with experienced mentors in the fields of heart disease and stroke research.

Dr. Beanlands is mentoring Dr. Thais Coutinho, a staff cardiologist at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute. She’s researching the aging process that appears within the arteries of patients with heart disease. Better understanding of the subtle physical changes in these blood vessels could lead to new and better ways to screen for heart disease earlier.

Dr. Coutinho credits her mentor with helping her focus on one area where she can make a tangible impact. “I’ve been taught the importance of focusing on a specific area and finding a niche,” she says.

Demand for good mentors is growing. Cuts to scientific research funding in recent years have shrunk Canada’s pool of cardiovascular researchers and made it considerably harder to attract and retain young investigators. 

Institutions are starting to recognize the long-term value of a good mentor. Formal and informal mentorship is actively encouraged within the research community, with some universities making it a mandatory requirement for graduation.

For many researchers the experience of being well-mentored can trigger a desire to pay it forward. It’s a cycle that Dr. Beanlands says is vital to continue the circle of academic life.

An early success like the ERLI grant can give a young researcher a platform to build on for future funding, explains Dr. Beanlands. It shows institutions that this investigator knows how to take the resources they’re given to get the results they need.  

Dr. Beanlands says it’s been highly satisfying to watch Dr. Coutinho and other ERLI mentees achieve solid results. “I’ve always said that today’s research is tomorrow’s treatments,” he adds. “It is the mentees who do the work but it is gratifying to think one may have had a very small part in their success.”

As for Dr. Coutinho, she says she has already noticed positive changes in her working style and approach to solving problems since beginning to work with Dr. Beanlands. Now she says she’s striving to emulate the professional success of and coaching style of her mentor.



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