Diverse perspectives: Immigrants bring a unique outlook to mentoring trainees

Illustration of hands in many colors giving “thumbs-up” sign

by Matt Greseth

Editor's note: Immigrants significantly affect many aspects of our daily lives. The following series of stories highlights the contributions of a talented group of MUSC researchers. This is part three. Read part one here. Read part two here. 

Movies often highlight the important role that trainers play in assisting and motivating their athletes.

Take “The Karate Kid” for example. Mr. Miyagi, a karate master from Okinawa, Japan, who emigrated to the U.S., takes a young karate student, Daniel, under his tutelage. Through many seemingly arbitrary chores – waxing a car, painting a fence, sanding a deck – Mr. Miyagi slowly teaches Daniel karate. Mr. Miyagi took his role as teacher seriously: “We make sacred pact. I promise teach karate to you; you promise learn.”

And just like actors in the movies, academic mentors, too, play a pivotal role in helping and teaching their trainees throughout their educations.

A good mentor teaches a person how to think, not what to think. A good mentor provides a brain to pick, an ear to listen and a push in the right direction. A good mentor empowers a mentee to see a possible future and believe that it can be reached. Two researchers at MUSC, profiled below, are known for their excellent mentorship.

Everyone needs a personal trainer

The journey of Shikhar Mehrotra, Ph.D., to the U.S. began under unique and distressing circumstances. He was scheduled to arrive from India for a postdoctoral fellowship on Sept. 14, 2001, just three days after the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Despite his trepidation, Mehrotra boarded a nearly empty plane and began the next stage of his scientific journey. His advisor met him at the airport in Hartford, Connecticut, and helped to facilitate his transition to life in the U.S.

Headshot of Shikhar Mehrotra, Ph.D. 
Shikhar Mehrotra, Ph.D., is the Cecilia and Vincent Peng Endowed Chair in Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology.

Entering the U.S. and starting a new life under such unique and scary circumstances could have made Mehrotra’s postdoctoral research career very difficult. But his mentor took the time to ensure that his transition was as smooth as possible, even helping Mehrotra to find an apartment. His mentor’s heartfelt dedication to his success made it possible for Mehrotra to thrive in his new adventure. Throughout his postdoctoral training, he maintained a positive relationship with his mentor and learned the value of expert training and mentoring.

Today, Mehrotra holds the Cecilia and Vincent Peng Endowed Chair in Melanoma and Cutaneous Oncology and is the associate scientific director of the Center of Cellular Therapy at MUSC.

Simply put, his lab studies T-cell immunotherapy and cancer. This is a challenging field because, although T-cells can kill cancer cells, the tumor has several strategies to inhibit their activity. To overcome this, he and his team aim to help T-cells to survive longer at the tumor to kill more cancer cells and provide T-cells with the ability to use a different energy source than the cancer cells. By augmenting the properties of the T-cells, the Mehrotra lab hopes to identify new potential therapies.

“The important thing is we want to take our results to the clinic,” said Mehrotra. “And that is what we are all in it for and what keeps us motivated.”

Mehrotra’s positive experience with his mentor, especially under such challenging circumstances, taught him the value of good mentorship and instilled in him a drive to train his diverse research team in a similar way.

“Everyone looks at things differently and brings a unique perspective – a different thought process – based on his or her background,” said Mehrotra. “It is always good to have different eyes and opinions tackling the same problem.”

Diverse perspectives bring a wide range of assets to the team. For example, team members differ in their technical training and their resource utilization and planning skills. But a diverse team also requires different mentoring approaches for candidates from different backgrounds and origins.

Mehrotra feels that it is essential to offer diverse experiences and training opportunities to push his students to do better. But it is important to understand how far and how fast you can push them. Mehrotra’s mentoring philosophy and pioneering research has opened many doors for his trainees, both within the U.S. and abroad.

“If I don’t invest in my students, I’m going to hamper their growth, and I don’t want to do that.”

Leading with your heart

International training is one of the many assets that immigrants bring with them to the U.S., and Federica del Monte, M.D., Ph.D., professor and director of the Christie Heart and Brain Center and Human Heart Biobank in the Division of Cardiology, brings a wealth of experience in that regard. Born in Italy, del Monte completed medical school at the University of Rome, with an emphasis in cardiology, and then earned her Ph.D. from the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, U.K.

Headshot of Federica del Monte, M.D., Ph.D 
Federica del Monte, M.D., Ph.D., is the director of the Christie Heart and Brain Center and Human Heart Biobank.

Following her graduate studies, she returned home to Italy as a clinical cardiologist, working at Italian government hospitals for five years, but she ran into a barrier there.

“At the time, being a female cardiologist in Italy was a little bit difficult. I had reached the top level I could possibly aim for in my country,” said del Monte. “Research was also difficult to do. I was given an opportunity to come to the States, and even though I was an attending physician in Italy, I started over as a postdoctoral fellow in a lab in Boston.”

After 20 years in Boston, she was recruited to MUSC in 2017 by Thomas Di Salvo, M.D., chief of the Heart and Vascular Integrated Center of Clinical Excellence. Together, they started a brain-heart center, where they study the relationship between heart failure and neurodegenerative diseases. The heart is easier to study than the brain and provides a window into how the brain functions. By merging knowledge gained in both organs, del Monte is able to pursue potential cures for these chronic, debilitating diseases.

“As a clinician, you treat one patient at a time,” she said. “As a scientist, you may treat them all at once.”

Her time-tested philosophy is just one of the many pearls of wisdom that del Monte shares with those she mentors in her lab. She believes that one of her most important jobs is training the next generation of scientists and physicians, instilling in them, too, the value of working with a diverse research team. A career spent collaborating with colleagues all over the world who exchange ideas that represent multiple perspectives has informed her understanding of the importance of inclusivity in the research world.

This concept is one that her trainees take out of the lab and into the professional world with them. She knows this because she maintains close relationships with her trainees, wherever their journeys may take them.

"Mentorship doesn’t end when they leave the lab; it continues. And this is great because eventually they become your peers."

Standing in your corner

People sometimes say there is no such thing as a bad student, only bad teachers. But the mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street, and the more both sides add to the relationship, the stronger it will be, according to Mehrotra and del Monte. It is with this approach that scientists and trainees embark on a long journey of learning.
At the end of “The Karate Kid,” during the tournament, Daniel begins to doubt himself, and Mr. Miyagi reassures Daniel that he is indeed prepared:

Daniel: “I don’t know if I know enough karate.”
Mr. Miyagi: “Feeling correct.”
Daniel: “You sure know how to make a guy feel confident.”
Mr. Miyagi: “You trust the quality of what you know, not quantity.”

The bottom line is that for trainees, having a good mentor like Mehrotra or del Monte or even a Mr. Miyagi – someone perpetually in their corner – makes it easier and more enjoyable to achieve their scientific goals and dreams, especially when they begin to have doubts about themselves.