Feature Article, Part 1
Meet the Mentor: William B. Coleman, PhD
Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill School of Medicine
I graduated from Wingate College (Wingate, NC) with a B.S. in biology and a minor in chemistry in 1986, and from Wake Forest University with a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1990. I was a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Joe W. Grisham in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine prior to joining the faculty in 1995. I am currently a Professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine (Chapel Hill, NC), and a member of the Curriculum in Toxicology, the Program in Translational Medicine, and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. I am the Director of Graduate Studies for the Molecular and Cellular Pathology Graduate Program, Co-Director of the Program in Translational Medicine, and Co-Director of the Environmental Pathology Training Program. My research has primarily focused on molecular mechanisms of cancer induction and progression, working in both experimental models systems and human subjects on topics related to cancers of the liver, lung, and breast. Current efforts in my laboratory are focused on epigenetic mechanisms of breast carcinogenesis and exploitation of the breast cancer hypermethylation defect to develop new approaches for targeted therapy. My service to the ASIP includes membership on various committees over the years (including the Program Committee, the Education Committee, the Membership Committee, and the Finance Committee), several elected positions (most recently Secretary-Treasurer), and membership on the ASIP Council for nearly a decade (first as Program Chair, then as an elected Councilor, and most recently as Secretary-Treasurer).
How did you first become a member of one of ASIP’s Committees?
A number of faculty members in my Department at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine have been very active over the years in the ASIP. In fact, three members (past or current) of my Department are past-presidents of the Society (Kenneth M. Brinkhous, Joe W. Grisham, and David G. Kaufman). When I was an Assistant Professor I was invited to become a member of the ASIP Program Committee based upon the recommendation of one of my faculty colleagues who had been serving on that committee. I subsequently served three years as a member of the Program Committee and was then elected to Program Committee Chair. So, in total, I served on the Program Committee for 6 years. This experience enabled me to see the inner workings of the Society and to meet lots of key people in the field. As a result of my experience on the Program Committee, I have now served the ASIP in several other elected positions and on a number of other committees.
What advice do you have for trainees that want to get involved?
Trainee members that want to be involved, should get involved. Opportunities for trainees to serve the ASIP exist, and there are more opportunities now than ever before. Most trainees that get involved find the experience to be invaluable. Over the years we have observed that as our active trainee members transition professionally into careers, they become valued regular members of the Society that continue to serve the ASIP in elected positions and on committees.
How would you recommend a trainee member get involved initially?
Trainees are now included on many of the ASIP’s standing committees. Hence, trainee members that want to get involved have numerous opportunities to serve. Interested trainees should identify themselves to regular members that are active in the leadership of the ASIP or that sit on ASIP committees. This might be faculty members from their university or members they meet at the Annual Meeting or in other settings. Alternatively, interested trainees can contact a member of the ASIP staff. An enthusiastic volunteer is always welcome on these working committees. Once we know of someone that is interested, we can advise them to the opportunities and assist in selecting the best fit for the trainee.
What benefits have come from your experiences on these Committees?
The ASIP is a fairly small society with respect to numbers of members, but is a giant among the larger pathology community. The leaders of the ASIP represent the leaders of the field of experimental pathology and very often clinical pathology. In addition, the Society provides a voice for the pathology community on matters of science policy. Hence, being active in the ASIP affords one the opportunity to meet well-placed people in the larger pathology community. There are numerous tangible benefits from knowing lots of people that are important to the pathology community. Some of these people represent potential research collaborators or possibly future employers. These are the people that review our manuscripts and grant applications, and we review theirs. It is essential for the advancement of experimental pathology (basic and translational work related to mechanisms of disease) for our professional networks to extend beyond the boundaries of our laboratory walls and our university campuses. Serving on an ASIP Committee is an excellent way for a trainee to begin to establish these professional contacts and linkages.
More specifically, has your network proven valuable for job and career advice/opportunities?
YES. As a direct result of my service to the ASIP, I know numerous Chairs of Departments of Pathology around the country, leaders in many fields of pathology research, several current (and former) Editors-in-Chief of pathology journals, and have an extended network of academic faculty peers to compliment my peers at UNC. This network affords greater opportunity to collaborate on research projects, results in invitations to serve on editorial boards and to contribute to book projects, and has provided me with strong support for my professional advancement. In fact, as I have been promoted through the academic ranks at UNC (from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor to Professor), most of my letters of support have come from people that I know through the ASIP.
What advice would you give a trainee that is trying to find a mentor?
Mentors come in different shapes and forms. It is preferable for the trainee’s research preceptor to also serve as a primary mentor for his/her graduate school training and beyond. However, in some cases, the research preceptor’s talent might be in directing research and not in providing professional development and career advice. Some of our mentors might represent people that we want to emulate, others directly participate in our research training, professional development, and career pathway. The ideal mentor (1) is accessible and willing to take time whenever necessary and as often as necessary to advise the mentee (whether student, postdoctoral fellow, or more advanced), (2) does not require tangible personal benefit from the interaction, it is done for the sole benefit of the mentee, (3) is careful and thoughtful in dispensing advice, and encourages thoughtful and careful decision-making by the mentee, (4) has a breadth of knowledge and experience that will useful to the mentee’s needs (now and/or later), and (5) always provides the best advice for the mentee, even if that means advising them that they need a different mentor (based upon knowledge, experience, and the kinds of assistance that can be provided). As a graduate student, mentoring might come from the primary research advisor as well as other faculty members (at-large or those forming one’s dissertation committee). As a postdoctoral fellow, it is an excellent idea to have an advisory committee with members that can provide direction and advice related to research and professional development. As a faculty member, I have several mentors (of my own choosing) that have been critical to my success, and I now mentor some of my fellow faculty peers. So mentors are people that we always need, no matter the length of our careers, the ranks we achieve, or the positions that we hold.
What is the best career advice you were ever given?
When I was first appointed to the faculty at UNC, Dr. Joe Grisham (who was Chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the time) told me “…from time-to-time you should look around [at professional opportunities in other departments or other universities]…” I was initially taken aback by this advice from my Chair. Then he went on to say “…you might find an opportunity that is too good to pass up, and you should take it…or, you might find that we are treating you pretty well here…” This suggestion on his part told me that his number one priority was for me to succeed, if not at UNC then somewhere else, and that this should be a high priority for me as well. He also told me that he was committed to making sure I could succeed at UNC.
What experiences or qualifications do you think are important to succeed in science?
• Persistence – If you are easily discouraged you will have trouble succeeding in scientific research because there will be times of great frustration related to failures experimentally, failures trying to publish results, and failure to get grant applications funded.
• Optimism – If you have a strong positive attitude, it will be much easier to deal with the failures described above and to persist in the research endeavor.
• Objectivity – It is essential to have an open mind when it comes to research. We have to interpret the results we obtain, not try to fit our results to a preconceived and perhaps erroneous idea. We also have to be willing to recognize when our idea turns out to be wrong and to modify how we view the biology of our system.
• Energy, Enthusiasm, and Passion – Boundless energy and enthusiasm represent assets for almost any pursuit and are particularly valuable in the research environment where success requires long hours and hard work, as well as the need to overcome the setbacks and failures that will occur. Likewise, a passion for the science is essential. We all need motivation to achieve the best possible results from our efforts. A passion for discovering new knowledge represents a powerful motivator.
What factors should an individual consider when choosing a post-doctoral or faculty position?
In choosing a postdoctoral research position, it is important to select a field of study that will benefit the trainee with respect to their career aspirations. This is an opportunity to refine or expand expertise gained as a graduate student, or to change research fields altogether. Securing a postdoctoral position in a well-funded laboratory is an advantage, and the laboratory group should also be productive (with respect to published research). At the end of the postdoctoral training period, the trainee will ideally leave with specific research expertise that can be utilized to launch an independent career, and some publications as evidence of this expertise.
In choosing a faculty position, the individual should consider both short-term and long-term benefits and liabilities associated with any given position. Long-term benefits associated with advancement opportunities, available research resources, and potential collaborative partners should outweigh short-term benefits associated with startup funds. A successful career does not happen overnight, but emerges over the long-term as a result of productive interactions among researchers in the right environment.
What is some of the best career advice you have for trainees of our Society?
We are working during a remarkable time for experimental pathology research. The newly emerging technologies for molecular analysis and drug development are increasing the number of translational outlets for our basic science research related to mechanisms of disease. Hence, we are in an age where discovery does not simply reflect improved understanding, but also translates to new diagnostics and treatment for major diseases. Today’s trainees should seize the opportunities available to them, to strive for excellence in research, and become good citizens of the larger scientific community. My advice to trainees is to seek strong mentors that can specifically advise them in their research and careers, to become invested in the field of experimental pathology and the community of pathology researchers, to meet others in the field and network, to exploit these networking connections for scientific collaboration and career advancement.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
I’m really not sure. My professional interests have always been towards the biological sciences. I suppose if I wasn’t a laboratory scientist, I might be a field biologist of some sort. Of course, that is still a scientist. Given my lack of real options career-wise, I hope my current career path works out.
Go to Feature Article, Part 2, Meet the Mentee