Friday, June 12, 2015

Research, Mentorship, Where Innovation Begins: Celebration Speech by Joel Mota

After being asked to do this speech, I dwelled on the idea of what I was going to even talk about. To no surprise, I sat in silence for many nights, not one click on my keyboard. So what did I do? I turned to google. I searched the word “Research”, to see what the internet had to say. Here is what I found, “Research comprises creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications.” I suppose Wikipedia gives a good answer, but it feels a bit off, a little hollow. It didn’t really talk about the sand between your toes when you are walking back to your car from volleyball matches with your lab mates, or the excitement of making your first microelectrode, the horror of the other dozen that broke in the process, or the anxiety of preparing talks you have to give, or the simple pleasure of trying out new foods with the friends you have made along the way. But most critically, it didn’t talk about guidance, or mentorship.

By no means is mentorship just guidance. Like research, mentorship does not start or end in a classroom or a lab. Mentorship is constant. It doesn’t work a 9 to 5 shift, but like those who do, mentorship is human. Mentorship makes a researcher’s work tangible. A mentor is someone who helps you find your limits, and pushes you beyond them. Who gives you a question about population dynamics of migratory fish or the interstitial concentration of actylcholine in glial cells in the morning, but by lunch time is giving you suggestions on the best places to eat in Pittsburgh or California.  A mentor will walk over to you, you who has been slaving over an experimental design for days maybe weeks, and can’t get the results you are looking for. Look at your set-up, poke around, maybe shake it a little bit, and then it works. Then your mentor shrugs, walks away, a job well done for the day. Above all, a mentor somehow has the uncanny ability to find people with drive, or potential. To quickly read and understand whether that person would work well with the others on the team. It is this ability that creates friendship and family through research.  This friendship and family is maintained by not just research but inspiration.

Being a mentor, is being a source of inspiration, being able to add a bit of meaning to the actions of a researcher or a student. Take me for example. My first year at George Mason University was uneventful. I did well in my classes, made friends with my floor mates, and enjoyed all the changes that come with starting college. Yet, something felt underwhelming. The days began to drag on and I began to feel lethargic. My motivation was at an all time low. It began to feel like high school round two, the last thing I wanted to happen.  Around this time though, I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to do some research work in a neuroscience laboratory. In this laboratory, I was able to work with a particularly inspiring mentor. Being a mentor, he instilled into me the motivation to not be complacent, to not just achieve, but to actively go out and search for opportunities, and to create my own.  He provided an example of what I could become with dedication and hard work in whatever I end up doing. He also provided me the ability to mentor others, when I was tasked to guide new researchers in our lab that would be working on my project. My own little minions. This was a pivotal moment in understanding what brought me happiness and convinced me that I want to be a mentor. I want to be able to provide the inspiration that defined my undergraduate experience, to future students. I want to be able give someone the opportunity to experience, struggle, or excel at answering a question that hasn’t been answered. To create an environment that facilitates achievement and excellence for students and researchers. To make innovation a commonplace occurrence.

I have been introduced into a community centered on research and mentorship, and am grateful to say that I was able to make my mark on this community at George Mason University. It is the entrance into this community that finally convinced me that when you are at Mason you are home.