On the Shoulders of Giants: The Mentor/Protégé Relationship

In a 1676 letter to one of his rivals, famed scientist Sir Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  This humble reflection is perhaps one of the most well-known comments on what I believe to be a fascinating and complex aspect of the scientific community: the relationship between mentor and protégé.

We can all picture the stereotypical duo.  On one hand, you have the mentor: the professor, the older, wizened, well-traveled scientist.  He is well-known in the scientific community and has made several valuable contributions in his field of expertise.  In his spare time, he enjoys a glass of good scotch and long, winding discussions with his esteemed colleagues from the university.  Then, you have the protégé.  He is the young, ambitious scholar.  Driven by a thirst for knowledge, he is eager to leave his mark on science.

In the ideal pedagogical relationship, the mentor is a willing teacher and his protégé an obliging student.   Honoring the common goal of scientific discovery, the mentor freely passes on his knowledge so that the next generation of scientists may carry the torch.  The student respects his mentor’s expertise, and endeavors to learn all he can from his teacher so as to one day be prepared to assume the mantle for himself.  An open dialogue–professional, yet courteous and friendly–exists between the two.

If only it were that simple.  As in the literature we have been reading, the mentor/protégé relationship often strays from this ideal model.  The very title of Andrea Barrett’s The Behavior of Hawkweeds alludes to this fact.  In this story, we find that Gregor Mendel, revered today as the father of modern genetics, suffered from a defunct mentor/protégé relationship.  Hoping to curry favor with the established scientific community, Mendel abandoned his studies on the breeding and hybridization of peas in favor of hawkweeds at the suggestion of his mentor, the well-known botanist Carl Nägeli.  Furthermore, Nägeli’s replies to Mendel’s humble letters were long in coming and highly self-centered, of little actual value to Mendel.  Unlike Mendel’s original subjects, the hawkweeds yielded chaotic results, leaving Mendel disillusioned and questioning the laws of heredity he had discovered.  He went on to become the abbot of a monastery, largely unknown and unappreciated in his time.  Sarah Anne Billopp of Rare Bird struggles with a similarly dismissive mentor, Carl Linnaeus, to whom she repeatedly writes only to receive disappointing responses.  These (and other) examples highlight the often dubious nature of the mentor/protégé relationship.

The way I see it, there is a laundry list of small things that can corrupt this delicate relationship, contorting it into a detriment rather than a benefit.  For it to work, the mentor must harbor an earnest desire to pass on knowledge and see his protégé succeed.  If the mentor does not become such of his own volition, petitioned repeatedly to take on an apprentice until he grudgingly accepts, he may come to resent his young charge.  The mentor could become bitter if he comes to see his pupil as his replacement.  If the mentor is still active in his field, he may grow paranoid that his protégé will copy or steal his work.

Whatever the reason behind it, any animosity for his protégé can turn a mentor into a saboteur.  He may, whether consciously or unconsciously, seek to undermine the studies of his young counterpart or sully his scientific reputation.

A healthy mentor/protégé relationship can foster a lifelong appreciation for science, while a misleading mentorship has the power to cripple the ambition and career of even the most promising young student.  In my opinion, the best advice for a budding scientist is to find a giant who won’t mind you perched up there on his shoulders, because it’s a long way down if he decides to shake you off.


~ by vanderbiltblog on February 10, 2012.

2 Responses to “On the Shoulders of Giants: The Mentor/Protégé Relationship”

  1. Wow this was one of the best ways I’ve ever seen anyone incorporate a quote into something they’re talking about, especially since Newton himself is also well-known in the scientific field. I found myself agreeing with most of your points, especially about mentor needing to truly want their proteges to succeed, but I questioned your examples. Were Nageli and Linneaus really mentors? Or were they simply rivals in the same field that Mendel and Sarah Anne turned to?

    I see a mentor as someone who takes an amateur under his wing, who teaches and instructs. Neither Nageli or Linneaus really took their respective people under their wings; in fact, I don’t think either of them even really talked to Mendel or Sarah Anne, beyond a few dismissive comments that more or less threw them further off track. I would have considered instead the relationship between Tati and Antonia, or Richard and Sebastian, or even Catherine and Sarah Anne (though that’s more of a collaborative partnership, not really a mentor-protege relationship).

    I feel like those relationships, more than anything else, really exemplify what it means to have a teacher. There is no pedagogy between Mendel and Nageli and nothing but disdain between Linneaus and Sarah Anne. I feel like your point had more to do with being careful who you search for as a mentor more than anything else, but it’s worth mentioning that the stories DID show strong teacher-student relationships, especially since the stories themselves used those good relationships to offset the bad ones. Even if Richard eventually became disillusioned with Sebastian, he still had a good relationship with him at first.

    I also loved your final sentence, but I would offer a small change: rather than finding someone who simply doesn’t mind you on his shoulders, why not instead find someone who helps you up there, and is willing to catch you if you fall?

  2. Thanks for the insightful comment. I did indeed wish to stress the importance of taking care in seeking a mentor.

    As you’ve pointed out, Nägeli and Linnaeus were not mentors in the truest sense. I agree that we’ve seen other relationships, such as the ones you cite, that serve as good examples of a fruitful mentor/protégé relationship. By including Nägeli and Linnaeus, I sought to exemplify the dangers of attempting to fashion a mentor out of an unwilling subject.

    Nice reworking of my closing image. I concur that the best mentor is indeed one whose support for his protégé extends beyond passive acceptance.


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