Dr. Ruth Gotian has a passion for education—the locus of her entire career, except for two youthful years she spent in investment banking. For nearly the last quarter-century, Dr. Gotian has held a variety of roles at Weill Cornell Medicine—most recently as administrative director of the Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program—with one common denominator: tapping her talents to help students and faculty succeed. Now, she’s the founding executive director of Weill Cornell Medicine’s Mentoring Academy, a new initiative devoted to fostering what Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean Augustine M.K. Choi calls “a vibrant and dynamic culture of mentorship” at the institution. Under the aegis of the Office of Faculty Development, the Academy will offer a variety of programs and activities—from talks to training sessions to networking events—geared toward helping faculty at all levels form mentoring relationships that will better position them to win research grants, get promoted, set appropriate career benchmarks and more. And, Dr. Gotian stresses, “We are going to do things in a very academic way,” starting with a thorough needs analysis to identify the primary challenges to be addressed.
In addition to her undergraduate and master’s degrees in business management from SUNY Stony Brook, Dr. Gotian holds a doctorate in education from Columbia; for her dissertation, she studied what makes very high-achieving physician-scientists so successful. (The key factors, she says, include “perseverance, work ethic, reflection, curiosity and mentorship.”) During her time with the MD-PhD program, she oversaw Gateways to the Laboratory, which brings talented undergrads from minority groups underrepresented in medicine to campus for a summer of research, aimed at preparing them to pursue the combined degree; she also founded a program that trains MD-PhD students to mentor Gateways participants. In her new leadership role, Dr. Gotian will also serve as assistant dean for mentoring, chief learning officer in the Department of Anesthesiology, and assistant professor of education in anesthesiology. Her motto: “Everyone mentor one.”
Why is mentoring important?
All the research has shown that those who’ve been mentored succeed more than those who have not. Mentors have significantly more experience than their mentees, have a vast network, and know the politics and nuances needed to get ahead. Having someone who can help you through that terrain—which can be very isolating—helps chart the way to success.
What qualities make a good mentor?
Listening. Observing. Understanding that your way isn’t the only way; just because it worked for you doesn’t mean it would for other people. Also, you need to understand that there are different forms of mentoring. Some mentees like to talk through a challenge, others like to read articles. People have different ways of absorbing information, and as mentors we need to know how to pivot.
What makes a good mentee?
Someone who will listen, who is open to asking questions and asking for assistance; someone who understands that it’s OK not to know everything.
How do you match the right mentor-mentee pair?
The matches have to be organic, and we need to create opportunities for them to occur. There have to be informal events where junior and senior people can meet; you will click with somebody, and when you do, you’ll know. At the end of the day, the mentor needs to be able to get the mentee to think deeper, to think differently. That’s why a network of mentors from different areas—including outside medicine and science—is helpful, and something that the Mentoring Academy will encourage.
What do mentors get out of it?
I feel that my success is measured by that of those I’ve mentored; when they’re successful, I feel successful. Knowing you’ve had a part in that is incredible. Everyone has something they can bring to the table, and when they can share it with others, we all become more successful.
Can mentoring happen at any level?
Absolutely. Everyone’s journey is different. Even when you’re senior faculty, there’s always more you can do. Figuring out what that “more” is, and how to get it, can be so exciting. If you want to go on to a senior administrative role, there are people who have charted that course ahead of you and can help.
Is mentoring especially important for members of under-represented minority groups?
Yes, because it’s difficult to be what you can’t see. For example, if there are very few women in senior-level positions and that’s what you aspire to, the more mentoring and role-modeling you get, the easier it is to attain that goal.
You’ve talked about the value of “horizontal mentoring.” What’s that?
It’s peer mentoring, when you help other people at your level. Every person’s experience and perspective is unique. If I’m a junior faculty member, a peer might have heard about an opportunity, a lecture, a grant, a journal, or something else that might help me get promoted. In the adult learning arena, we call that a “community of practice.” Most of what we learn occurs informally, and this provides opportunities to learn from other people. Everyone gets the opportunity to be a mentor and a mentee.
As part of the Gateways program, you created an online platform for virtual mentoring. What’s the advantage of that?
It allows students to pose questions and get multiple perspectives from trained peer mentors. Someone can say, “I’m in week four of the program and I’m not getting any data,” which can feel like the end of the world. But the mentors can reply, “This is perfectly normal. Here’s someone you can talk to. Here’s an article you can read. Walk me through the steps of your experiment; have you tried this?” It creates a many-to-many mentoring dialogue. I’m really excited about that initiative, as it’s the first of its kind for a STEM summer program.
How do you approach mentoring?
At the beginning, I do a lot of listening and very little advice giving. I want to figure out what excites the person, what challenges them. Often mentees come to me feeling that they’re having a crisis. When I can convince them that what they’re going through has happened to many other people, it’s less isolating. And it really helps reduce imposter syndrome, which is the fear that you don’t deserve a position that you’ve actually earned.
Can you give an example of how a mentor has shaped your career?
I had one mentor, Dr. Bert Shapiro, who was director of all MD-PhD programs at the NIH. He told me, “Don’t do something interesting; do something important.” Those words have stuck with me forever. Because if we can do something important, we can make a change.
— Beth Saulnier
A version of this story first appeared in Weill Cornell Medicine, Summer 2018 issue.