The Importance of Being and Having a Mentor: Q&A with Max Essex

Essex Lab retreat in New Hampshire

Q&AMax Essex is the Lasker Professor of Health Sciences at Harvard University, as well as the Founding Chair of both the Harvard AIDS Initiative and the Botswana Harvard Partnership. He talked with Martha Henry, HAI’s Director of Communications, about mentoring students and young scientists.

You’re primarily a research scientist. How important is your role as a mentor?

Extremely important. I think mentoring students to learn how to do research is one of the most important things I do.

When a student or young researcher asks to work with you, what are you looking for? What makes you say yes?

Intelligence, energy, and a willingness to ask questions that require complex thought to get the answers. You have to look for some spark in people for thinking more deeply as opposed to just compartmentalizing information.

Scientific research involves a lot of dead ends and failed experiments. As a mentor, how do you help your trainees deal with discouragement?

Essex teaching freshmen
Essex teaching freshmen

I’ve seen very few instances where you didn’t learn from so-called failed experiments. You can have a couple of reasons for failed experiments. One is that you didn’t follow the mechanics of the protocol and the cells died and you got no results—you can’t do much with that.

But if your results are that your experimental arm wasn’t different from the control or you know for a fact that the virus infected the cells, but didn’t induce the expected effect of change in those cells that you thought it would—in those kinds of instances, you learn. It may not be something that’s easy to package and publish, but you learn. And you certainly use that information in subsequent designs.

It’s often said that in scientific research, if you’re doing good experiments and asking the right questions, your answers very often lead to more hypotheses as opposed to just packageable results that are immediately reduced to practice. What some people might call failed experiments often lead to even better hypotheses.

Did you have a mentor?

I had several, but the most memorable one by far was a guy named George Klein, a brilliant thinker. He was a physician/PhD Hungarian refugee who was a professor of tumor biology at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

He asked questions about everything all the time. He had a deep interest in many different disciplines: immunology, virology, cell biology, genetics, ecology, biochemistry, and radiation biology—a whole range of disciplines. Having an interest in all of these was key to his ability to think through large problems.

What role did your mentor play in your career?

An important role. He took interest in me and his other students and postdocs from all over the world, introducing us to other scientists and mixing us into conversations with different generations. He’d have Nobel laureates and undergraduate medical students and postdocs and technicians and everybody else to dinner to talk together about research questions. It was not at all hierarchical, so it was very effective.

You’ve made a strong commitment to training African researchers in hopes that they’ll return to Africa. Why is that important to you?

Max Essex and Thumbi Ndung'u
Drs. Max Essex and Thumbi Ndung’u

It’s important because there’s great need to empower the medical and scientific establishment within sub-Saharan Africa so that the people who best understand the local situation in a political sense, in a socio-economic sense, in a behavioral —all of these—can make sure that the questions that are most important for those populations are being raised. We must be sure that the way in which those questions are being answered helps local populations in the best and fastest way possible.

I think you can never do that well unless the people who are most familiar with the value systems and the culture are deeply immersed in the research and, in many cases, leading it. With the developing situation in Africa, we’re only now getting to the state where that can be done in very many African countries. It should be done in a lot more.

Title photo is of an Essex Lab retreat in New Hampshire in the 1990s. Several of Essex’s trainees are now professors at Harvard.